Juneteenth is our newest national holiday, signed into law yesterday by President Biden after passing the Senate. It commemorates a starting point, but nowhere near the finish line, for true equality of all Americans. Juneteenth is the first new U.S. federal holiday since the establishment of Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 1983. Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III writes, “Juneteenth holds particular significance for our military. It marks the date in 1865 – 2+ years after the Emancipation Proclamation – when Union, led by U.S. Army Major General Granger, issued General Order No. 3, informing the people of Texas that “all slaves are free.” Massachusetts made it a state holiday last July, and the Commonwealth Museum in Dorchester has just opened an exhibit HERE displaying fourteen related documents from 164-1865. Among them are an order from the Massachusetts Adjutant General announcing the emancipation proclamation, the act by the Massachusetts Legislature ratifying the 13th Amendment that ended slavery in America, and a letter from Frederick Douglass.
Several local musical organizations are celebrating the holiday with live concerts, online programs, talks, walks, and special events. “Juneteenth is a chance for us all to reflect on this country’s painful history of slavery and the systemic impact that racial injustice continues to have today,” Governor Baker said last summer. “It is also an opportunity to recommit ourselves to the goal of creating a more equal and just society. As our country continues the national conversation around racial injustice, it is especially important that we recognize Juneteenth. I look forward to working with our legislative colleagues to recognize this important day more widely going forward.”
Castle of Our Skins continues its excellent work with two new productions: Witness: Spirituals and the Classical Music Tradition is a four-part (as of today) series of free, digital programs exploring the ways some Black American composers have found inspiration in the rich tradition of spirituals, presented by the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Click HERE for more information about Castle of Our Skins’ ongoing season.
From the Motherland, co-sponsored by the Boston Center for the Arts, explores Zimbabwean cultural roots through twelve songs for solo voice, mbira, piano, percussion, and bass. It is a personal rite of passage into womanhood by performer Tanyaradzwa Tawengwa Nzou Mambano. This project is funded in part by a grant from the Boston Cultural Council, a local agency which is supported by the Mass Cultural Council, a state agency. Click HERE for more info and pay-what-you-like tickets.
This Saturday at the African Meeting House on Boston’s Black Heritage Trail, NEMPAC Opera Project will celebrate its 10th Season with Juneteenth: Opera in the Key of Freedom. This virtual streaming presentation (12:30pm, and available to watch after the debut) will present works by William Grant Still, Scott Joplin, the Chevalier de Saint-Georges, and a World Premiere Commissioned Piece for North End Music & Performing Arts Center by Mason Bynes. Local performers include soprano Kay Patterson-Shaw, (see her Apple podcast “Insights from the Organized Soprano” HERE), mezzo soprano Veena Akama-Makia (website HERE), tenor Fred VanNess, Jr. (website HERE), and baritone RaShaun Campbell (website HERE). The chamber orchestra accompanying this quartet features local African American musicians such as violinist Thomas Cooper, concertmaster of the Du Bois Orchestra at Harvard (website HERE), recent NEC viola grad Kevonna Shuford (interview HERE), Marshunda Smith, principal cellist for the North Shore Philharmonic (website HERE), and contemporary flautist Adrienne Baker (website HERE). Free tickets are offered HERE.
Sunday, June 13, LA-based Singer Melissa Givens presented a lecture entitled “Opera in the Harlem Renaissance” as part of the San Francisco Opera’s weekly online lecture series entitled SFOpera Aficionado (series link HERE): she played excerpts from Scott Joplin’s Treemonisha and described his other (missing) operatic work; discussed Theodore Drury (1867-1943) who ran his own opera company from 1900-1938 and Mary Cardwell Dawson (1894-1962), the founder of the National Negro Opera Company in Pittsburgh, PA; and presented stories of the struggles of African American singers including Robert McFerrin (the first African American to sing at the Met, and father of Bobby), opera composers Harry Lawrence Freeman (1869-1954) and Clarence Cameron White, and singer Shirley Graham DuBois (1896-1977), who had an active career before she married W.E.B. DuBois and was censored for working with the YMCA.
Upcoming Sunday afternoon programs (4pm Eastern time) will discuss Marian Anderson (Reed College Professor Mark Burford on June 20), The Identity of Black Singers in Opera (June 27), Zarzuela (July 11), Baroque Opera in the New World (July 18), and Opera in Latin America (July 25). See HERE for more information and presenter names.
Connecticut’s versatile and innovative vocal chamber ensemble, Voices of Concinnity will present an outdoor choral program at 6pm in Hartford contrasting deserving (but lesser known) works by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and Renaissance Italian nun Vittoria Aleotti with well-known choral favorites by Vaughan Williams and Claude Debussy. Contemporary choral works by female composers Elaine Hagenberg and Reena Esmail, and Cheryl Engelhardt complete the program. See HERE for details.
Juventas New Music Ensemble, supported by the Massachusetts Cultural Council, presents Yearning to Breathe Free, “a [live, online] concert exploring what it means to be patriotic in a country that has not always afforded freedom to everyone.” Works to be presented include Margaret Bonds’ I, Too, Sing America, Oliver Caplan’s The New Colossus, Tom Cipullo’s Frederick Douglass, Maria Corley’s Battle Hymn of the Republic / I’ve Been to the Mountaintop, James Dargan’s What, to the American Slave, Is Your Fourth of July?, Marek Harris’ Amerika braucht Liebe, süße Liebe, J. Rosamond Johnson’s Lift Every Voice and Sing (arr. James Dargan), Steven Mark Kohn’s The War Prayer, Shawn Okpebholo’s My Country, William Grant Still’s Fanfare for American Heroes, André Thomas’ I Hear America Singing and I Dream a World, Gwyneth Walker’s Let America Be America Again, and Christopher Wicks’ The Mightier Word of Peace. For more information, see HERE.
San Francisco’s Museum of the African Diaspora HERE will hold a virtual celebration entitled “Rock ’n’ Roll Heretics: Shredding While Black and Female” on June 19 (2pm Eastern time), which brings together a multigenerational cast of players with North Philadelphia singer-songwriter and guitarist Samantha “GhettoSongBird” Hollins, Atlanta native Gabriella “Guitar Gabby” Logan, and Los Angeles musician Zorrie Petrus for an online roundtable. This will be followed by presentations of African American social dance (5pm) and “Juneteenth: Connecting the Historic to the Now” (7pm). The event is hosted by Los Angeles author Sikivu Hutchinson, a regular
MoAD collaborator, whose new Black feminist road novel, Rock ’n’ Roll Heretic: The Life and Times of Rory Tharpe, offers a backstage view into the trials and tribulations facing Black women who defy expectations imposed by both the music business and their own communities. All events are pay-what-you-can.
From the Top’s fantastic, uplifting continuing online performance series “Daily Joy” (HERE) has featured many African American composers and performers. Additions to the series in 2021 include Coleridge-Taylor’s Quintet for Clarinet & Strings (June 17, HERE), Florence Price’s Adoration for cello (June 16, HERE), String Quartet No. 2 (April 23, HERE), Piano Sonata in E Minor (January 18 , HERE), a string trio arrangement of Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come (June 15, HERE), the Davidson Chorale singing the spiritual There is a Balm in Gilead (June 14, HERE), William Grant Still’s Incantation and Dance for oboe (June 2, HERE) and Summerland for violin (May 5, HERE), and a mashup of The Weeknd’s “Can’t Feel My Face” and “Where Are Ü Now” for mixed nonet (February 12, HERE).
Local pianist Lara Downes recently curated an program of piano versions of American standards including “Lift Every Voice and Sing” and “A Change is Gonna Come” for NPR HERE.
The Boston Musical Intelligencer has devoted some attention to different aspects of African American music in Boston, including articles entitled “Harmony in the Pews” (June 2015), HERE , “Black Composers Matter” (October 2016) HERE, “Celebrating African-American Artistry” (February 2018) HERE, “Ardent for Du Bois” (October 2018) HERE, “A Far Cry: Enthusiastically Mixed” (December 2018) HERE, “Du Bois Back in Harvard” (February 2019) HERE, “Juneteenth Thoughts on Boston & Current African American Composers” (June 2020) HERE, “African American Voices in Early Boston” (June 2020) HERE; articles and reviews of the earlier work of the Boston-based Castle of Our Skins HERE, HERE, HERE, HERE, HERE; and a review of a local concert presented by Jim Thomas and the Martha’s Vineyard-based U.S. Slave Song project HERE.
Other BMInt reviews from the last two years featuring African American composers and performers include (but are not limited to): “Insane, Crazy, Real-Feel BSO” (March 2019) HERE, “America/We Need to Talk.” (March 2019) HERE, “Ifetayo Ali Takes Boston!” (May 2019) HERE, “American Women Composers Varied Yet Cohesive” (May 2019) HERE, “A Chamber-Scale Odyssey with Many Champions” (July 2019) HERE, “Deep and Profound Along the Charles” (August 2019) HERE, “Spirituals and Showboat on the Deep Charles River” (July 2019) HERE,“Dancin’ on the Quarter-Shell” HERE, “Florence Comes Home” (October 2019) HERE, “Sukkot, Shostakovich, & Smetana at Symphony” (October 2019) HERE, “Post Marination, Goosby Impresses” (November 2019) HERE, “String Quartet on a Mission” (November 2019) HERE, “Terrence Wilson Delivers at the Gardner” (February 2020) HERE, “She’s the First” (August 2020) HERE, articles about the BSO’ “Music in Changing Times” series (November 2020) HERE and HERE, “BSO Business Unusual” (March 2021) HERE.
The African American Composer Initiative HERE is a presenting organization based in East Palo Alto, CA; it commissions new works and sponsors performances and videos of music by living and historical African American composers. The African American Art Song Alliance maintains a YouTube page of over seventy videos of recital performances HERE.
Dr. Henry Louis Gates directs Harvard’s W.E.B. Du Bois Research Institute at the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard HERE, which has supported over 300 fellows since its founding in 1975; the Institute also awards medals to individuals whose work have contributed significantly to African and African American culture. 2004-05 Fellow Lorraine Elena Roses’ project “Black Boston’s Cultural Flowering, 1920-1940” was published HERE, and 2010-11 Fellow Lisa Thompson’s project “Staging the Unspeakable: Cultural Trauma in African American Theater & Performance” has resulted in several new plays by the author. Donald Yacovone, an associate at the Hutchins Center, is now engaged in two book projects, Teaching White Supremacy: The Battle Over Race in American History Textbooks and The Liberator’s Legacy: Memory, Abolitionism, and the Struggle for Civil Rights, 1865–1965.
African American Heritage Trails and Literary Districts may be visited in Boston HERE and HERE, Oak Bluffs HERE, the Florence Neighborhood of Northampton HERE, and the Upper Housatonic Valley HERE. The Museum of African American History HERE has campuses in Boston and Nantucket. The Friends of Boston’s Gaiety Theater (now lost), the home of the Harlem Renaissance in Boston, maintain an informative website HERE; both the Boston Musical Intelligencer publisher and one of our writers highly involved themselves in documenting and trying to save the place.
Some newer resources include links provided by the African American Art Song Alliance HERE, sponsoring performances and new compositions since 1997; Song of America, an outgrowth of Hampsong at the University of Michigan HERE; and Dr. Louise Toppin’s easily searchable African Diaspora Music Project HERE. Dr. Toppin, a professor of Voice at the University of Michigan, supervises the George Shirley African American Art Song and Operatic Aria Competition (founded in 2010), the Dr. Lynn Bridges Memorial Award Scholarship (for graduate study in music, founded in 1999) and the Edgar A. Toppin Memorial Award (for research and special projects, founded in 2004).
For further reading, please consult these five great books on New England’s African American communities: William Pierson’s Black Yankees: The Development of an Afro-American Subculture in 18th-Century New England (Amherst, 1988), Robert C. Hayden’s African Americans in Boston: More Than 350 Years (Boston Public Library, 1991); the edited collection Blacks at Harvard: A Documentary History of African-American Experience at Harvard and Radcliffe (New York: NYU Press, 1993); Boston’s Black Upper Class: 1750-1950 by Adelaide Cromwell (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1994); and Love of Freedom: Black Women in Colonial and Revolutionary New England by Catherine Adams (Oxford, 2010).