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Reflections on New York Festival of Song’s “Harlem Renaissance” Concert: Ferguson, Staten Island and What the Songs Teach

These songs can teach us as well as comfort, inspire and entertain us. These songs are wise; we must attend to their wisdom and be inspired by it.

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Steven Blier, James Martin, Julia Bullock, Darius De Haas and Michael Barrett as they appeared in New York Festival of Song's "Harlem Renaissance" concert (December 9, 2014) (Photo credit: Matthew Murphy)

Steven Blier, James Martin, Julia Bullock, Darius De Haas, and Michael Barrett as they appeared in New York Festival of Song’s “Harlem Renaissance” (December 9, 2014) (Photo credit: Matthew Murphy)


Jean Ballard Terepka, Music Critic

The recent New York Festival of Song’s “Harlem Renaissance” at Merkin Concert Hall at Kaufman Music Center was marvelous. NYFOS Artistic Director and Founder pianist Steven Blier, Associate Artistic Director pianist Michael Barrett and singers Julia Bullock, Darius de Haas and James Martin presented an evening of twenty-four songs composed at the height of the Harlem Renaissance by its best composers and lyricists.

These five superb musicians made of each song its own complete world, brilliantly and movingly offered to the audience who then received each musical gift with gratitude.

In his program notes and informal comments from the stage, Blier made a distinction between serious art songs on the one hand and the freer, late night tunes of musical theater and night clubs on the other. Presenting songs from these different milieus and contexts, Bullock, de Haas and Martin got to sing in a wide variety of styles and genres, moving the audience to both laughter and tears. Familiar and unfamiliar songs alike conveyed a whole range of human experience from joy to despair, from community to solitude, and from birth to death.

Blier noted in some of his comments during the evening that this program of Harlem Renaissance material was first conceived and presented after the September 11, 2001 attacks and that at the time, these songs had provided “support, encouragement, perspective, joy and illumination” when Americans were feeling most dazed and shaken. He indicated that recently, as he and his colleagues have been “remastering” the Harlem Renaissance material, the need for the songs’ encouragement and perspective has emerged once again.

It’s true.

But we need this material for more than its capacity to move or cheer or encourage us.

We need it for its capacity to teach us and disturb us, goading us to think more clearly about issues of racial justice.

The elegant strength of the NYFOS Harlem Renaissance concert was that the musicians identified so deeply with the lyrics – both their contexts and their content – that we who listened could escape neither the dense, complex and multilayered meanings of the material nor the terrible truths of racism, inequality and inequities, and the deep psychological traumas left by these social, economic and political hurts that racism inflicts. The almost simultaneous refusals of grand juries in Missouri and New York to indict white police officers who killed unarmed black men over the last several weeks are not aberrations of the particular: they are typical of systemic racism and the devaluing of African-American lives. The fears and anger about what in the early twentieth century writers variously called the race question, the Negro problem or the troubled status of colored folk, continue to exist today; the multiple meanings of Harlem Renaissance songs help us understand both history and our present day selves.

At one level, because of its universality, the music of the Harlem Renaissance has become a timeless part of our contemporary culture: it’s familiar, it’s easy. But on another level, difficult historical realities are written into the songs, sometimes buried deep or deftly encoded, and it is our responsibility to be alert to these realities and to understand them: past history continues to inform the present we inhabit.

The infectious appeal of the music – its accessible and memorable tunes, its energy and funky urbanity, its sexy, cheering call to dance, its accurate descriptions of daily human experiences – makes it feel universal. No matter who we are, we recognize something of our own selves in the songs; they in turn become part of our daily lives when we hum them or stride in rhythm to a song as we walk down the street.

But any ahistorical response to this music, even the most enthusiastic embrace of its genuine universality, denies both this music’s full power and its urgent usefulness.

As much as this music is universal, it is also particular to a very specific time and place, and it is subversive. Its truth-telling is so deep and so subtle that the casual listener can miss it. Sometimes the truths had to be embedded in oblique and clandestine phrases: saying certain things too plainly was a dangerous business.

The NYFOS concert’s first song, The Joint is Jumpin’ (Waller; Razaf and Johnson) – happily familiar, toe-tappingly fun – contains centuries of complex meanings and allusions. It’s an invitation to exuberance and abandon; that’s something everyone can enjoy. But it’s also a call to freedom and creativity, and a defiant, full-throated holler of contempt for the times when African-Americans were forbidden to congregate, even as post World War I race riots and violence on street corners continued to be a source of daily danger and fear. This Blier/Bullock/de Haas/Martin Joint is Jumpin’ captured both the song’s joy and its sedition: Come, sing and dance, stomp and thump … but know that, in the end, all this creative energy, once released, won’t submit to being locked up again. Beware trying. Come, dare to be … but be careful. The Joint is Jumpin’ is both invitation and warning to African and European descended people alike.

My Handy Man Ain’t Handy No More (Blake; Razaf) is famous for its sharp and sexy, earthy double entendres. This is the bluesy lament of an enduringly strong and vibrant woman who, once, long before, had gotten “that kind of love” she’d been “craving for” (Blake; Sissle) and now was living in a colder house. Bullock’s rendering of these songs was at once steely strong and tenderly wistful; her sensuality was comfortable and expansive, but not flashy.

Her lament is not just about a man who’s become less attentive: it is about a man unmanned. The core story here is about black men’s arrival into adulthood in the era of segregation and Jim Crow: once identity itself is declared meaningless, a man can’t maintain either his home or his place in it.

Some of the evening’s “art songs” were exquisite examinations of loss … not of recent happinesses or satisfactions, but of possibility itself. Songs of journeys used pilgrimage vocabularies; the sacred sites are not some abstract theological geography but, simply, home. In the journey songs, the memory of the middle passage is always close at hand.

The happy-go-lucky, no-worries-here songs – You’re Lucky to Me (Blake; Razaf), In a Sentimental Mood (Ellington; Kurtz), I’m Just a Lucky So-and-So (Ellington; David) – are among the most subversive and deceptive. On the one hand, they seem to reinforce one white stereotype of African descended men and women as stupidly cheerful and perpetually happy. But other, more powerful traditions are at work here. There is a grim fatalism about the exhortation to not worry: if there’s nothing to be done to make things better, then why even think about it? Even more deeply enracinated in slave songs on the one hand and in the moral dictates of self-help uplift literature on the other is Jesus’ commandment to not worry: God will take care of the powerless as he does of sparrows in the air and the lillies of the field. God will see that justice prevails.

Blier explicitly commented on the subversive nature of the Razaf’s lyrics in Black and Blue (Waller and Brooks; Razaf). When a mobster backing a new show wanted one more fun song about black folks’ self-declared troubles, the result was Black and Blue. Stunningly sung by de Haas, this four stanza song was plausible as a show tune – some plot turning-point in the life of an unhappy character; a soliloquy; a moment of reflection – but entered one’s heart as a psalm of desperate anguish.

This underneath-and-inside content of these Harlem Renaissance songs is their power. Their accessibility and universality constitute their allure. The NYFOS musicians presented both.

Over time, as some of these songs have become part of America’s musical and cultural vocabulary, it is the accessibility and universality that have been appropriated, reinforcing the naïve misperception, in favor with some white Americans, that racial integration has been proceeding forward smoothly ever since World War II.

But as the paradigmatically awful recent events in Ferguson, Missouri and Staten Island, New York have made clear, racism remains as deeply set in our attitudes and institutions now as it was in the first half of the twentieth century, in post-Civil War Reconstruction, on and on back into slavery and the assumption that white people had the right to own black ones.

The enduring power of the Harlem Renaissance songs comes from their truth telling and historical testimony. Their accessibility and quality of invitation, their universality of human experiences of love, family, hope and loss, and their indomitability all make us adore these songs, and forget that they were initially the products of a devalued and segregated community.

One important strength of the NYFOS concert is that the musicians presented both the material’s universality and its historicity.

As all of us grapple with the events of Ferguson and Staten Island, we must become more knowledgeable about the history of racism and segregation in this country; we must have the courage to confront the enduring legacies of slavery and racism. These Harlem Renaissance songs can teach us as well as comfort, inspire and entertain us. These songs are wise; we must attend to their wisdom and be inspired by it.

New York Festival of Song has helped us to do so.

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