Book Genre: Autobiography
Of Minnie the Moocher & Me
Cab Calloway and Bryant Rollins. Illustrations selected and edited by John Shearer.
I’ve been reading autobiographies since I was a child. Whether on upstate Western New York hazy autumn dog day afternoons, warm winter evenings sitting by the fireplace (I’m now aware of how blessed I was as a young Black child to have an actual wood burning fireplace in my living room), spring drizzle days when outside would seem too rainy to play, or hot humid late summer evenings when crickets would chirp loudly into the Town of Tonawanda starlit nights, I would sit reading an autobiography and dream through lives I knew I would never experience.
My parents encouraged me to read at an early age. Both enjoyed reading. At times, I think they thought that I read too much, choosing to stay indoors rather than to play outside with friends. But my love of autobiography was cultivated with their indulgence.
As an adult music history specialist, I still read autobiographies about all types of people, although most are about writers and composers. While reading, I try not to obsess too long on the micro-history of a person’s life. I try to limit my encounter with two books and perhaps a few scholarly articles. Contemporary music biographical interest is often assuaged by Internet Websites, NPR, VH-1 Behind the Music Cable Television shows, or local KPBS specials. However, when a book chances my way . . . .well, you know.
One such autobiography about the life of performer, pianist, band director, composer, singer Cab Calloway is by the singer musician Calloway himself and Bryant Rollins. It is indeed what we would call today, “a reveal.”
The intro catches the eye with lyrics from his renowned infamous song, “Minnie the Moocher” :
“Now here’s a story ’bout Minnie the Moocher
She was a low-down hoochy-coocher
She was the roughest, toughtes frail
But Minnie had a heart as big as a whale.”1
It was a hit that encouraged lyrical improvisation and audience participation. Several generations later, thanks to the film “The Blues Brothers” Cab rode the audience wave with mischevious delight, hair flying and eyes twinkling in instigation like he did in the 1930s.
When it really got to feeling good, I’d holler for the
audience to join in.”Wah -de-wah-de-wah-de-doo,” I’d sing.
“Wah-de-wah-de-Wah-de-doo,” the band and the audience
would holler back.2
This narrative song with socially charged lyrics accompanied by scat singing is about a woman that we might today call a good- hearted freeloading hootchie mamma. Many of Cab’s songs, fun though they might be, were full of such characters who inhabited the underbelly of society.3 Calloway, although born into a fairly conservative Black family, was very familiar with the subculture within the general African American cultural frame of his era. His autobiography is his way to reveal his real life person-hood, to his flaws, true feelings about events in his life not only his mistakes, but also his successes.4
His father died when he was young, and he experienced the extended paternal family love that used to be common in the Black community. Shortly after his father died, his grandfather(a small businessman who owned a pool hall) also died . Then, his family moved to another extended family situation with his mother’s family. His maternal grandmother, and uncles helped raise him until he began to break away and turn to the the streets to bring in additional family income. And he relates one of his most poignant revelations is about becoming a teenage father and making the decision to be more than an absentee baby daddy.5
The book is 250 pages long with three appendices. The first is from 1944. It was quite in light of access today’s hip hop dictionary and culture books to discover that Calloway wrote ,The New Cab Calloway’s Hepsters Dictionary with alphabetical listings of “hep” or In-crowd folk’s slang. (Some words are not used anymore in the Black community, others remains fairly unaltered or somewhat altered in meaning today).6 The next appendix was written several earlier.
Appendix 2 , Prof. Cab Calloway’s Swingformation Bureau is from 1939. It contains definitions and short essays on such topics as “Are you hep to the Tags(Nicknames) of the Gates?” “Are You Hep to the Events in the World of Jive?” It also has an answer section to questions posed throughout this appendix and also a final exam!6 Following this section is a long list of Calloway’s published and performed works from 1937 through 1949.7
Written with an audience friendly slant, Calloway takes his readers through good times, hard times, and situations that helped him realize the importance of carefully considering one’s options before reacting. “Of Minnie the Moocher and Me could easily be considered a cautionary tale for today’s young music stars about why it is important to ride fame’s crest with humility and soul searching introspection.
1. Cab Calloway and Bryant Rollins, “Introduction.” Of Minnie the Moocher & Me, with illustrations selected and edited by John Shearer(New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1976). 1.
3. Alyn Shipton, “The Rise of the Big Bands:Cab Calloway,” A New History of Jazz. Revised and Update.(New York: Continuum, 2007),206 notes: With his Zoot suit, floppy long hair, wide grin, and cries of “Hi-de-ho,” Cab Calloway was one of the larger-than-life characters on the jazz scene of the 1930s. His singing was powerful and dramatic, with a repertoire of songsthat contained none-too-thinly veiled references to the Harlem drug culture of the time, featuring Minnie the Moocher and Smoky Joe.
4. Cab Calloway and Bryant Rollins, “Introduction.” Of Minnie the Moocher & Me, with illustrations selected and edited by John Shearer(New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1976). 4-5
5. Ibid., 46-49.
6. Ibid, 253 for instance: “Chick” is still used for girl, “freebie” still means per gratis, 255, “corny” is still stale, “signify” in some instances still means to brag, boast, declare oneself 259. Others: “Wren” also a chick , “Twister to the Slammer”: key to a door.
6. Ibid., 263-274.
7. Ibid., 275-282.
Book Genre: Text or Informational
We’ll Understand It Better By and By: Pioneering African American Gospel Composers.
Edited by Pioneering African American music historian and performer Bernice Johnson Reagon, as part of the Smithsonian Institution Research Project, this text is a must read for those who are interested in the origins of African American Gospel music beyond the myths and legends.
Johnson http://www.bernicejohnsonreagon.com/shr.shtml is noted for many accomplishments including research compilations, historical writings, congregational singing workshops, and performances with the group Sweet Honey In the Rock.
Reagon notes In the introduction of We’ll Understand It Better By and By, “The African American worship community–the Black church in it’s largest expression–has been the nurturing institution for one of the world’s greatest music cultures.” 1 She was nurtured in this community and presents it across the world to those who will read and listen. This project is a labor of love complete with historic photos, music examples and occasional music theory analysis.
Its contributors include Horace Clarence Boyer who examines the life and struggles of Lucie E. Campbell, trailblazing woman composer for the National Baptist Convention. Anthony Heilbut’s essay brings much needed focus on the contributions of Gospel music composer Herbert Brewster. Pearl Williams-Jones explores the life, music, and lyrics of 1930s Gospel star Roberta Martin.
As valuable as they are, the extensive annotated bibliography, works cited, Record Album Notes, and a recent Theses and Dissertations list take a while to examine. With these sections, the entire text is over over three hundred fifty pages. The effort . . . is worth the time.
Essays in We’ll Understand It Better‘s are written with clarity in very accessible language and full of research talking points for high school students, college students, and academic music specialist.
This text is a real gem.
Musewoman Delores Fisher
1. Bernice Johnson Reagon, ed. “Overview.” We’ll Understand It Better By and By: Pioneering African American Gospel Composers (Washington, Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992),3.
Book Genre:Text or Informational
From Jubilee to Hip Hop
Kip Lornell,ed. “Introduction” in From Jubilee to Hip Hop: Readings in African American Music, Upper Saddle River: Pearson Education, publishing as Prentice Hall, 2000.
Working as a North American Black music specialist for the Center For World Music and as a Lecturer on African American music for the Department of Africana Studies at San Diego State University, provides me with access to many publishing houses lists of scholarly works. I gratefully receive several Black Music textbooks, readers, critical/popular culture and cutting edge Africana critical theory special topic works on African American music each semester. Publishers reading lists and review requests keep me aware of recent publications, or works in progress.1 In answer to several requests, I’d like to share another of these gems with you readers.
From Jubilee to Hip Hop: Readings in African American Music, edited by Kip Lornell is one of the most exciting compilations that I have read in several semesters. It is similar to Eileen Southern’s reader of source documents about Black music; From Jubilee to Hip Hop has fewer historic pre- 20th century selections but does include a chapter “from the first book about the Fisk Jubilee Singers that was initially published in 1881.”2
A majority of the essays are from throughout the 20th century including an essay on Hip Hop, “Hip Hop, Puerto Ricans, and Ethnoracial Identities in New York” by Raquel Z. Rivera 3 which is one of the recent inquiries into invisibilized latino contributions to the genre. Lornell chose essays by such groundbreaking scholars as Lawrence Gushee, Lynn Abbott and Doug Seroff, Portia K. Maultsby, Rickey Vincent, Mark Anthony Neal, Cheryl L. Keyes, William Banesfield, Kip Lornell himself and Charles Wolfe. The compilation is a smorgesbord of intellectual appetizers, side dishes and “stick to your mental ribs” main entrees.
Essays are accessible in language with writings from five to twenty-five pages long. However, average essay length is only seven pages. Lornell carefully selected authors who patiently present theoretical constructs and research methodologies for neophytes to experienced Black music researchers as they examine their essays’ topics. In addition to academic and “serious” topics, it is replete with popular culture trivia and humor. One complaint—–the smallness of its print font only the one Hip Hop essay. However, it is over 370 pages long excluding credits and index; its wealth of information and auto-biographical insights compensates.
One of my favorites examples of “auto-biographical” is a quote in Rickey Vincent’s examination of P-Funk. My Africana Studies 385 students sometimes ask how George Clinton came up with the concept of their costumes and corporeal stage presence. The also wonder how the “ever ethereal Mothership” became a necessary part of the group’s stage performances in 1975. I read them portions of Vincent’s essay. On the Mothership, Vincent quotes what Clinton told Abe Peck,
We saw this light bouncing from one side of the street to the other. It happened a few times and I made a comment that “the Mothership was angry with us foe giving up the funk without permission.” Just then the light hit the car. All the street lights went out, and there weren’t any cars around . . .I said, “Bootsy, you think you can step on It.” 4
On a serious note, William Banfield’s “Black Artistic Invisibility”: A Composer Talking “bout Taking Care of The Souls of Black Folks While Losing Much Ground Fast” briefly analyzes difficulties experienced by academically trained African American composers in today’s pervasive obsession with limited constructs of Blackness; this is reflected in popular American cultures’ conflation of the “Blackness” from R&B to Hip Hop and Rap to the exclusion of other creative expressions of Blackness. 5
After castigating the recent decade long focus of negative Hip Hop culture overflow on BET–which by the way I must interject with appreciation, ” is in process,” revamping itself into an inter and intra-generational positive empowering agent of cultural advocacy which now includes contributions of a socially conscious Hip Hop generation–Banfield states, “I have a friend who speaks of BET as our televised Festival of Ignorance, a sexual minstrel show where Black males are being constructed as the commodity of anger and Black females in too many videos are diminished further as an image of a slut, sex-driven, power access thirsty babe for leisure use for the crew.”6
(He also holds Black Academe and the community in general accountable for societal obsession with Hip Hop’s darker underside.)
Banfield also revisits an old discussion that arises in every generation. The invisible Classical Black composer and definitions of “Serious Music.”
This is my goal as a Black artist in the academy. Along with a camp of colleagues representing at least three generations of artists, we are creating the spaces and making making the works of a Black music canon in modern serious Black music. I don’t like to label music, but this is a movement that includes Jazz, operas, contemporary instrumental music, ballet and symphonies. We got some Black Beethovens living in here, and what’s most sad is y’all don’t en know it! 7
Whether one agrees with his premise or thinks he protests tooooooo much on the Eurocentric Black music flip side, this brief thought provoking essay can be compared to similar essays from previous decades which point to a constantly resurfacing conflicted lacuna which juxtaposes Black popular musics against the marginalized borders of Black Music academia.
Kip Lornell’s compilation as a primary text is perhaps not the best use for its rich content at the undergraduate. There, it better serves as a supplementary text. On the graduate level of African American music study, it is a resourceful module to include among several semester texts. In either instance, From Jubilee to Hip Hop should facilitate many hours of productive classroom discourse on the complex multiple aspects of African American Music History.
1. I am grateful to participate in the text review process. It provides insights into recent research topics and methodologies.
2. Kip Lornell,ed. “Introduction” in From Jubilee to Hip Hop: Readings in African American Music, Kip Lornell, ed.(Pearson Education, publishing as Prentice Hall: Upper Saddle River, 2010), xvii. The essay: J.B.T. Marsh, Adrift n Stormy Seas,3-5 describes the singers first tour.
3. Raquel Z. Rivera, “Hip Hop, Puerto Ricans, and Ethnoracial Identities in New York” in From Jubilee to Hip Hop: Readings in African American Music, Kip Lornell, ed.(Pearson Education, publishing as Prentice Hall: Upper Saddle River, 2010),276-296.
4. Rickey Vincent, “The P-Funk Empire: Tear the Roof Off the Sucker” in From Jubilee to Hip Hop: Readings in African American Music, Kip Lornell, ed.(Pearson Education, publishing as Prentice Hall: Upper Saddle River, 2010), 267.
5. William Banefield, “Black Artistic Invisibility: A Black Composer Talking ’bout Taking Care of the Souls of Black Folks While Losing Much Ground Fast,” in From Jubilee to Hip Hop: Readings in African American Music, Kip Lornell, ed.(Pearson Education, publishing as Prentice Hall: Upper Saddle River, 2010), 333-341. Note, this essay was written before such drama-trauma mainstream reality TV shows such as “Flavah FLav,””I Love New York,” “Hip Hop Atlanta,””Real Housewives of Atlanta.”
6. Ibid., 335.
Musewoman, Delores Fisher
BOOK Genre: Text or Informational
Eileen Southern ed, Readings In Black American Music 2nd ed.,W. W. Norton & Company , Inc. 1983.
Dr. Eileen Southern
Dr. Eileen Southern’s disruptive compilation of African American music source documents is one of the most important forerunners of today’s African American musicological texts. Her passing created a void in the discipline that is being closed by a third generation of researchers. http://www.news.harvard.edu/gazette/2002/10.17/02-southern.html
First published in 1971, the preface to the first edition states the author’s purpose,
The purpose of this collection of readings is to make available to persons interested in the history of black-American music a representative number of authentic, contemporary documents illustrating that history from the seventeenth century to the present time. While the book may be used as an independent anthology, it was originally intended to serve as a companion work to the present author’s The Music of Black Americans: A History (New York 1971)1
Southern’s longitudinal archival research uncovered publishe documents in sources that had been shelved for years without consideration. She read and selected from a broad spectrum of contemporary sources to glean the thoughts of a few Europeans who wrote their observations on African music to serve as complement to the thoughts of Black writers from earlier eras, including traders, slaves, women of letters,musicians, composers, song collectors and critics.2
The second edition preface published in 1983 notes that more than a decade later, increasing interest in African American music had helped to inspire publications by researchers from a diveristy of fields; the second addition’s aim was to “…indicate the advances in knowledge that have taken place since 1971 and to provide examples of some contemporary materials.”3
Dr. Southern provides a brief historical overview that includes the time period, the author’s crendentials-biographical material- and the circumstances that prompted the writings.
The second edition contains observations on sacred, secular and profane aspects of black music. It opens with excerpts from observations written in 1623 by European Richard Jobson who was sent out to gather information on African life on the river Gambia.4
One interesting writing from the late 1800s the often quoted observations by African Methodist Episcopal minister freeborn Daniel Alexander Payne, reveals conflicts by educated and slave blacks on the proper way in which to worship.5
Perhaps several of her twentieth century selections are the most revealing for African American music history students. She includes essays by composer-musicians from several Black music genres including comments by James Reese Europe, Will Marion Cook, Dizzy Gillespie, William Grant Still, Olly Wilson and one of my mentors, award winning contemporary composer Thomas Jefferson Anderson (T.J. Anderson).
T.J. Anderson’s comments were excerpted from a 1969 Indiana University School of Music five day seminar on “Black Music in College and University Curricula” that attracted leaders in the field, both black and white from all over the nation.” 6. Anderson’s critique of 1966 African American culture has haunting parallels to today’s current socio-musical creative/discursive terrain; it is well worth re-visiting. For example, he states:
Within the black community there exists many points of fascination. In the area of instrumental music(marching Bands, dance halls and clubs) one constantly sees experimentation. Musicians basically self-taught develop abilities on the basis of accident, or as a means of developing self-expression. We see development of new techniques to fit one’s own personality or peculiar needs. . . And another term which I’d like to interject is “inspired intensity.” I don’t know if this exists in any other music, but this is a fusion of achieving the highest degree of expressive powers within a framework of limited technical facility or skill.7
Sounds to me like what seems a cyclical manifestation in the black community when traditional music education is denied to African American children and young adults.8 Perhaps the last time this occurred with startling results was the era right before Hip Hop/Rap emerged. 9 As Anderson further states
I think we constantly see musicians who are limited in terms of background because of the lack of economic privileges, who are basically self-taught or ill taught in many cases, and who actually develop this means of communication through the development of expressive powers which transcends their limitations in terms of expressive ability.10
Anderson has been a bridge between the often classically trained avant gard black musician and those who have used the hearth of “inspired intensity” in electronic music and on the turntables of DJs who weave the Black aural tapestry of the 21st century. Watch the video below.
T.J. Anderson and DJ Spooky
Some scholars fault Dr. Southern for not critically analyzing the document and others, but that was not her purpose. This is a select compilation with brief editorial notes which allows the critical reader to seek further documentation to expand knowledge about the source. Eileen Southern’s Readings In Black Music 2n edition provides educators a broader perspective on African American music and an opportunity to share fairly accessible documents with their students that can lead to interesting guided classroom discussions. And . . . the 3rd edition was updated
Delores Fisher Musewoman
1. Eileen Southern ed. “Preface,” in Readings in Black American Music. 2nd ed. (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1983) xi.
2. Ibid., xi.
4. Richard Jobson, The Golden Trade or a Discovery of the River Gambra and the Golden Trade of the Aethiopians Text: The original edition(London, 1623), pp, 106-107, printed courtesy of the Rare Book Division, New York Public Library, Astor Lenox, and Tilden Foundations. in Readings in Black American Music. 2nd ed. Eileen Southern Ed.(New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1983) 1-3.
5. Daniel Alexander Payne, From Recollections of Seventy Years  in Readings in Black American Music. 2nd ed., Eileen Southern Ed.(New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1983) 65-70.
6. Thomas Jefferson Anderson, “From Black Composers and the Avant-Garde: original text: Black Music” original text from “Black Music in Our Culture ” ed. Dominique -Rene de Lerma(Kent Ohio, 1970) pp 63-67 reprinted by permission of the Kent State University Press, Copyright 1970 by Dominique-Rene de Lerma in Readings in Black American Music. 2nd ed., Eileen Southern Ed. (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1983) 318-322.
8. Throughout the last couple of decades of researching African American music history in North America, several seemingly recurring patterns can be mapped onto the socio-cultural historical reality of Black people’s musical production.
9. See myhomepage series of reflective articles on select aspects of Hip Hop and Rap.
10. Thomas Jefferson Anderson, “From Black Composers and the Avant-Garde: original text: Black Music” original text from “Black Music in Our Culture ” ed. Dominique -Rene de Lerma(Kent Ohio, 1970) pp 63-67 reprinted by permission of the Kent State University Press, Copyright 1970 by Dominique-Rene de Lerma in Readings in Black American Music. 2nd ed. (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1983) 322.
Music in North America and the West Indies from the Discovery to 1850: A Historical Survey
Music in North America and the West Indies from the Discovery to 1850: A Historical Survey. Maryland: Scarecrow Press, Lnc. Author Daniel Mendoza de Arce, 2006.
If you are searching for a fairly comprehensive North America Music History book that starts from the early 1600s, I highly recommend this text. I use the qualifying words “fairly comprehensive” to acknowledge that contrary to tacit invisibilization of our sacred and secular American music traditions in most music history textbooks, Daniel Mendoza de Arce makes a strong argument that we do have traditions resulting from a blend of European, Native American, and African, music aesthetics since the cultures interacted.
Early 1600s to 1850 is an enormous chronological and cultural scope to research. To continue the text into the twentieth century, Mendoza de Arce would most likely would have to have included Asian influences and cross pollination contributions from Mexican musical history as well. As it stands, the text is filled with a cornucopia of well-researched information about American “cultivated music” composers, the socio-historical contexts of their lives, their music, as well as the socio-cultural fabric of our emerging “American-ness” that helped to shape the music with which many of us only have a slight acquaintance.
At the college level, the seven large chapters with sub sections provides an engaging critical perspective that is not for those whose reading skills are below par, whether music majors history or not. (For professors looking for a comparison, think Marie K Stolba’s prolix traditional music history text of about fifteen years ago). And de Arce’s use of the phrase “cultivated American music” in the preface and elsewhere may give some pause for adverse reaction (I know I did at first). That being said, professors and K-12 teachers will still find its modular chapter topics easy to adapt for classroom use that will meet WASC and VAPA academic standards.
One of my favorite sections “Military, Outdoor, and Public Ceremonial Music” opens a window onto early America’s historical musical tapestry that remains intact with few alterations in twenty first century America. Both military and such civilian events as assemblies, hangings, proclamations, formal balls, picnics, as well as the ceremonies held by colleges, lodges, guilds, unions, and other organizations(eg., commencements, inaugurations, meetings, parades), usually required music, which would be provided from a range of small amateur or professional acoustic indoor (chamber) ensembles to large outdoor Military band ensembles.
A majority of today’s instrumental performances, acoustic and electronic, are usually enhanced by sound amplified sound. Good old fashioned local parades still provide the flavor that once vibrated across our land–marching bands stepping lively to bass drums, snare drums, brass, and woodwinds in cadence.
Music during various occasions serves as a socially unifying signifier a majority of public and private spaces regardless of ensemble size. Browse Internet multi-media interactive websites, count the use of music. Watch televised events, music usually accompanies advertisements, provides TV show theme songs, serves as a background for plot movement, and usually accompanies major political events. Although, I must admit, we rarely have campaign songs associated with presidential candidates that were as successfully linked to a president as Noble and Sissle’s “I’m Just Wild About Harry” was linked to Harry S. Truman. However, at campaign parties, music holds court to facilitate people’s interaction.
And case in point: No matter who wins the American election this year, as in the past, music will most likely be part of the presidential inaugural event. In its celebration of diversity, the last inauguration musical presentation (PRE-RECORDED BY THE SAME ARTISTS OR NOT) of a traditional Shaker tune, arranged by John Williams, played by Isaak Perlman: violin, Yo-Yo Ma: cello Gabriela Montero: piano, and Anthony McGill:clarinet –stand out as one of my personal favorites in its resonance of “seemingly” simplicity and idealized Americanism.
Daniel Mendoza de Arce (Ph.D. University of Uraguay) has assembled much information in a reasonably accessible text. I predict that it will provide many music history teachers with valuable information for decades to come.
Thinking of Music History and American society,
Musewoman Delores Fisher