Black music, its history, its composers, and its musicians cross almost every musical genre and are lauded and played across the globe by people of all races, ethnicities, and nationalities. There’s no wonder why it has often been part and parcel of the political life of this nation and welcomed into the hallowed halls of the White House.
As Black Music Appreciation Month comes to a close, it’s fitting to spend this last #BlackMusicSunday in June exploring it. Let’s dive into its genesis and the historical connection between U.S. presidents and the music that is one of America’s greatest offerings to the globe. President Jimmy Carter first designated June as Black Music Month in 1979, and it’s been proclaimed by the White House each year since then. Though the name has shifted over the years, the subject has remained the same.
According to music historians and those who have documented White House history, the first known appearance of a Black person to perform there was a young, blind, enslaved child who was known as “Blind Tom,” and whose name has been recorded as Thomas Greene, Thomas Wiggins, and Thomas Bethune. Born in 1849, Thomas performed at the White House in 1859.
Mark Twain historian Barbara Schmidt has an extensive history of Thomas’ life posted on her long-running twainquotes website; Twain took an interest in Blind Tom over the years.
Tom was born on May 25, 1849 with a condition that today's doctors might diagnose with the politically correct term "autistic savant"--one of only about 100 cases recorded in medical history. Tom's father Domingo Wiggins, a field slave, and his mother Charity Greene were purchased at auction by James Bethune of Columbus, Georgia when Tom was an infant. Domingo and Charity's former master thought the blind sickly "pickaninny" had no labor potential and he was thrown into the sale as a no cost extra. Although Tom's parents were married, the prevailing custom of the time dictated that female slaves and their children retain the names of their owners. Following slavery tradition, Tom received the name Thomas Greene Bethune.
In 1869 Tom's path crossed that of Mark Twain who was traveling across the country on his own lecture tour. Twain, who was also writing for the San Francisco Alta California newspaper, reported that he attended Tom's concert three nights in succession. From Mark Twain's first hand account of Tom's performance:
"He lorded it over the emotions of his audience like an autocrat. He swept them like a storm, with his battle-pieces; he lulled them to rest again with melodies as tender as those we hear in dreams; he gladdened them with others that rippled through the charmed air as happily and cheerily as the riot the linnets make in California woods; and now and then he threw in queer imitations of the tuning of discordant harps and fiddles, and the groaning and wheezing of bag-pipes, that sent the rapt silence into tempests of laughter. And every time the audience applauded when a piece was finished, this happy innocent joined in and clapped his hands, too, and with vigorous emphasis."
Twain concluded his impressions of Blind Tom by writing:
"Some archangel, cast out of upper Heaven like another Satan, inhabits this coarse casket; and he comforts himself and makes his prison beautiful with thoughts and dreams and memories of another time... It is not Blind Tom that does these wonderful things and plays this wonderful music--it is the other party."
For more on Twain’s “archangel” theory, the White House Historical Association provides these details about Thomas.
Eleven-year-old piano prodigy and composer Thomas Greene Wiggins Bethune (1849-1908) is believed to have been the first African American artist to perform at the White House when he played for President James Buchanan in 1860. By that time "Blind Tom"—as the unsighted enslaved child was billed professionally by his white master-manager Colonel James Bethune—had toured the United States and was a national musical sensation. Those at the command performance in the Executive Mansion were also amazed that such moving and masterful music flowed from someone who was young and disabled (Tom suffered apparent mental deficiencies as well as blindness)—and also a "Negro." In an era when even many abolitionist whites presumed all blacks to be an inherently inferior race, one newspaper critic in attendance reported that Blind Tom's musical skills surpassed Mozart's.
Perhaps the greatest injustice of Blind Tom's career was that, given the racism of the times, few if any of his myriad white fans—not even Mark Twain who once caught Tom's act three nights in a row—considered the African American musician as truly possessing any musical talent, much less genius, of his own. Instead, white audiences typically explained that, since a black person was inherently incapable of such artistry, the spectacular music pouring from Blind Tom's fingertips did not originate inside Tom, but instead came from some supernatural source outside Tom whose black body was merely the music's borrowed "vessel."
You can hear Thomas’ story and more of his music in this video with concert pianist John Davis. Blind Tom had “a repertoire of 7,000 works” which, as Davis remarks, was “simply astonishing.”
Though sheet music of Blind Tom’s compositions survive, there are no recordings of his performances.
Black women were also on early White House guest lists. Sadly, there are also no recordings of their performances.
Nearly two decades after Blind Tom first performed there, the White House hosted soprano Marie “Selika” Williams.
Performing a quarter-century after slavery was abolished, Selika had choices Blind Tom did not.
There was also Sissieretta Jones.
Jones had quite the career, including White House performances for multiple presidents.
The White House Historical Association offers this extremely brief nod to both Williams’ and Jones’ White House performances.
In 1878, diva Marie ("Selika") Williams appears to have been the earliest black artist to present a musical program at the White House. The Fisk Jubilee Singers introduced the "spiritual" as an American art form and came to the White House as part of a tour in 1882 that raised funds to benefit Fisk University. They became the first black choir to perform at the White House and their performance of "Safe in the Arms of Jesus," moved President Chester Arthur to tears.
Another great performer was Sissieretta Jones (Black Patti), the daughter of a former slave, who sang opera arias and ballads for the Harrisons in 1892. A sensational vocalist, Jones received rave reviews and fame in a career that included performances at the White House for the Harrisons, McKinleys and Theodore Roosevelts. Black entertainers in the 19th century established a grand tradition of performance that evolved to embrace every variety of music–from opera to gospel and from jazz to symphonic.
PBS’ American Masters produced this short feature on on Jones for their Unladylike 2020 series.
This series covered the Fisk Jubilee Singers in February 2021. If you missed it, be sure to give it a read.
I have seen hundreds of posts and articles proclaiming famed contralto Marian Anderson the first Black woman to perform at the White House, and they are historically incorrect. Anderson did perform there in 1936, where she captured the interest of Eleanor Roosevelt, and then again in 1939. She sang Schubert’s “Ave Maria” at that gala; while there is no available recording of that particular event, here is one of her other performances.
Let us now fast forward 40 years to the election of President Jimmy Carter in 1976, and his declaration of the month of June as Black Music Month.
Nabil Ayers, writing for Pitchfork, explores the history of the celebration’s founding, and “what Black Music Month means now.”
Black Music Month started after the hitmaking Philadelphia soul producer Kenny Gamble visited Nashville in the 1970s and was inspired by the Country Music Association (CMA), a powerful organization that underlined the genre’s economic strength by spearheading Country Music Month every October. Gamble and other Black music community leaders shared a similar sense of unity and knew they were making a significant economic impact. But no organization like the CMA existed to demonstrate or mobilize that message. So in 1978, Gamble started the Black Music Association, quickly building a network of high-level supporters including Stevie Wonder, Motown Records founder Berry Gordy, and Rev. Jesse Jackson.
In less than a year, Gamble—along with media strategist Dyana Williams, and radio DJ Ed Wright—founded Black Music Month. On June 7, 1979, President Jimmy Carter held the first-ever Black Music Month celebration, where scores of Black celebrities congregated on the White House lawn. “There had been Black people in and out of the White House, but never to the extent of what happened that day,” Williams recalls ...
Williams returned to the White House 21 years later, in 2000, after successfully lobbying for Black Music Month to be recognized by the U.S. government. President Clinton made Black Music Month an official proclamation that year, with the stated purpose of “recognizing the importance of African-American music to global culture and calling on the people of the United States to study, reflect on, and celebrate African-American music.” President Obama renamed it the more modern (but less catchy) African-American Music Appreciation Month during his first term in 2009.
I didn’t realize that Carter’s declaration, which you can hear in this video clip of his remarks, didn’t become “real” until a bill was passed years later and signed into law by then-President Bill Clinton.
Dyanna Williams, CEO of Influence Entertainment and the “Mother of Black Music Month,” discusses how the month of June became known as Black Music Month—and the role she and famed Philadelphia music producer Kenny Gamble played in its final establishment by Clinton.
In 1978, Carter invited an amazing group of jazz musicians to perform an outdoor concert at the White House. It’s one of the events that I will never forget in my lifetime, since I was there.
At the time, I was the program director of the Jazz and Jazz Extensions Pacifica radio station in Washington, D.C.; station manager Gregory Millard and I both got invites. One of the first stories I wrote here at Daily Kos, “Jazz on the White House lawn,” was about that very event. One of the memories that stands out for me? Carter was clearly fascinated by the most avant garde musician performing there that day: pianist and composer Cecil Taylor.
Greg and I were seated in the row behind the president, and we both noticed that Carter was leaning forward, staring intensely at Taylor’s fingers as he played solo for about five minutes, with Carter seemingly spellbound. As soon as Taylor finished playing, the president got up and followed him. It struck me that there were quite a few jazz fans who felt Taylor’s free-jazz was “too far out,” but Carter had connected with it—which I thought was pretty cool.
Nate Chinen wrote about that day for JazzTimes.
“Legendary concert promoter George Wein recalls when he brought the giants of jazz to President Jimmy Carter's White House in 1978”
The weekend of the White House jazz festival turned out to be a rather important time for the president. That Saturday, June 17, he signed a treaty promising the return of the Panama Canal to Panama in the year 2000. He returned to Washington early Sunday morning, and immediately went to sleep.
That afternoon, I gathered the musicians on the South Lawn to run down the program. It was a remarkable assembly. Benny Carter next to Ron Carter. Clark Terry alongside Chick Corea. Sonny Rollins, Stan Getz, Zoot Sims, Illinois Jacquet—all in one place. Some of the artists were going to play together in groups; others would play solo. My biggest concern was time. I had been instructed to restrict the affair to two hours. In order to meet this demand, I had to impose time limits. After some quick calculations, I had it figured out. Solo artists would get five minutes apiece. Ensembles would get eight minutes. Asking Cecil Taylor to play for only five minutes was not easy. But he, and everyone else, cooperated without complaint, although Eubie Blake, who would have been happy to play all night, did grumble good-naturedly.
The first of our ensembles—a septet featuring Teddy Wilson, Jo Jones, Milt Hinton, Roy Eldridge, Clark Terry, Illinois Jacquet and Benny Carter—played “In a Mellow Tone”.
It was appropriate that they opened with “In a Mellow Tone,” written by the late great Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington, a native Washingtonian. Since there is no recording of that performance, enjoy this version.
Wein lists the next performance as one by Sonny Rollins, Max Roach, McCoy Tyner, and Ron Carter doing a Rollins’ tune, “Sonnymoon for Two.”
The final scheduled set featured Lionel Hampton, Chick Corea, Stan Getz, Zoot Sims, Ray Brown, George Benson, and Louie Bellson performing “How High the Moon,” “Georgia (on My Mind),” and Lionel Hampton’s well-known theme song, “Flying Home,” which he renamed the “Jimmy Carter Jam.”
Wein goes on to say that as the concert was ending at its scheduled time, Carter countermanded the closing order and let the party go on. It was a jam session that ended with him up on the stage singing “Salt Peanuts” with Dizzy Gillespie.
Carter wouldn’t be the only POTUS to get into the act—who could forget the closing of this jazz concert at the White House, when Clinton was pushed into playing a borrowed sax?
And Clinton would pick up an axe and play again at the 90th birthday celebration for Lionel Hampton.
Of course, no president has done more for the appreciation and celebration of Black music from the White House than Barack Obama. I’m going to post three examples that I will never forget, and I hope if you missed them back then, you’ll listen to them now.
I’ll start with 2014’s PBS In Performance at the White House: Women of Soul.
Aretha Franklin, Melissa Etheridge, Patti LaBelle, Jill Scott, Janelle Monáe, Tessanne Chin, and Ariana Grande put on an amazing show, with LaBelle and Franklin knocking their musical numbers out of the park.
In 2016, jazz took center stage.
As YouTuber Floyd Basham notes:
The 2016 All-Star Global Concert featured a cast of internationally renowned jazz artists including pianists Joey Alexander, John Beasley (Musical Director), Kris Bowers, Chick Corea, Robert Glasper, Herbie Hancock, Danilo Pérez and Chucho Valdés; trumpeters Terence Blanchard, Till Brönner, Hugh Masekela and James Morrison; vocalists Dee Dee Bridgewater, Jamie Cullum, Kurt Elling, Aretha Franklin, Al Jarreau, Diana Krall, Dianne Reeves and Sting; saxophonists Eli Degibri, David Sánchez, Wayne Shorter and Bobby Watson; bassists Christian McBride, Marcus Miller, Esperanza Spalding and Ben Williams; guitarists Buddy Guy, Lionel Loueke, Pat Metheny and Lee Ritenour; drummers Brian Blade, Terri Lyne Carrington and Kendrick Scott; percussionist Zakir Hussain; trombone player Trombone Shorty; and the Rebirth Brass Band.
I went through a pack of tissues during this special, since we were losing the Obamas to the advent of the Orange Disaster.
Hosted by Terrence J and Regina Hall, the star-studded event featured Jill Scott, Common, Usher, Bell Biv DeVoe, The Roots, Janelle Monaé, De La Soul, Yolanda Adams, Michelle Williams, Kierra Sheard, and Leslie Odom Jr.
I choose to skip the Former Guy and any artists who hugged up to him.
Last year, Robert A. Brown wrote this impassioned plea in The Washington Post, directed to a recently elected President Joe Biden.
The president’s home was eerily quiet during the last administration. When Celine Dion, Jennifer Holliday, Elton John and other musicians refused to perform for Trump’s 2016 inauguration, it may have led his administration to roll up the red carpet for musicians and artists in general, convinced it would be hard to get big names to accept the invitations.
Still, the contrast with the Obama administration could not be more profound. The 44th president’s celebration of music included almost every genre imaginable, with country, hip-hop, classical, pop, rock, R&B, Latin and Broadway artists taking their turns in the East Room. The sights and sounds of figures like Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin, B.B. King or the cast of “Hamilton” performing for the Obamas and their guests was the norm. President Barack Obama used his office as an excellent forum to expose this country and its inhabitants to our rich, diverse musical heritage. [...]
Although Biden and Vice President Harris need to be focused on big national issues, I am counting on them to strike up the band, sing a simple song or maybe even cut a rug in the White House. It will be incredible to see the reemergence of music as part of our national psyche. The releasing of a 46-song musical playlist by the new administration to celebrate the 2021 inauguration was a good start, but I hope they do more to soothe our troubled souls in a fashion that only music can achieve. As a theme, I hear the 1983 song “Let the Music Play” by Shannon as our new beginning. Perhaps in the spirit of uplifting a dispirited nation, they can at least hold the first year’s concert on Zoom.
I realize we are facing challenges on multiple fronts—particularly in Friday’s draconian overturning of reproductive rights—and that midterm elections loom. However, I do agree with Brown: Music heals, and brings us together. And from my point of view, Black music is a powerful tool to do just that. I hope the Biden White House will choose to use it.
Join me in the comments for lots more Black music … and be sure to share some Black music that has moved you through the years.