Carol Oja: Teaching Race in the History of American Music

In this episode of Houghton75, we speak with Carol Oja, William Powell Mason Professor of Music, to discuss her research and teaching on the history of African-American music. Her selection for our current exhibition is a 1920 flyer featuring the African-American performer Bert Williams. Find out more about the exhibition and Houghton Library’s 75th anniversary celebrations at

Music by Rhiannon Giddens

Additional historical recording from the Internet Archive

Episode Transcript

[Title sequence background music: Fireworks, Igor Stravinsky, performed by the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra]

Alex Csiszar: Houghton is just this amazing place.
Deidre Lynch: It’s fascinating.
Stephen Greenblatt: It’s yours for the asking, and that is incredible!
Stephanie Sandler: Plus it’s cool.

James Capobianco (JC): Welcome to Houghton75. I’m James Capobianco.

Hannah Ferello (HF): And I’m Hannah Ferello.

[end music]
JC: Houghton Library opened its doors at Harvard in 1942. Throughout 2017, we’re celebrating the library’s world-class collections, and support of research and teaching over the last 75 years.

HF: This podcast is only one of the ways to participate in our year-long program of events that promises a unique glimpse of some of Houghton’s most treasured holdings and and the way they inspire scholars and students. Visit for more information.

[background music: “Genuine Negro jig” tune from the late 1800s, performed by Rhiannon Giddens. Track 13 on the CD Unmasking Jim Crow: Blackface Minstrelsy in American Popular Culture, January 26, 2016, Loeb Music Library]

JC: The history of American music is filled with great composers and performers. From folk songs to rhythm and blues, fanfares to show tunes, the American musical tradition draws inspiration from a diverse array of cultures.

HF: In many cases this borrowing and blending of musical styles leads to cultural fusion, the creation of new traditions that respectfully combine many influences.

JC: This fusion reflects the diverse population of a “melting pot” country such as the United States.

HF: But not all borrowing is respectful or appropriate. Some musical traditions, such as the songs of black-, red-, and yellowface minstrelsy, mock a minority population while also imitating their traditions. They transgress the boundary between appreciation and appropriation.

JC: However difficult it may be to reflect on this aspect of American history, the songs of minstrel shows left a lasting mark on the nation’s music. Even so-called “classic” American tunes like ‘Oh, Susanna’ and ‘Camptown Races’ have their roots in the blackface tradition.

HF: We spoke with Carol Oja, William Powell Mason Professor of Music here at Harvard, to discuss her research and teaching on the history of African-American music. Her selection for our current exhibition is a 1920 flyer featuring the African-American performer Bert Williams. Even at this seemingly modern date, the shadows of the minstrel stage can be seen in Williams’ choice of costume and repertoire. But why would he select songs and costumes reminiscent of a derogatory tradition?

[end music]

Carol Oja (CO): So Bert Williams was an African-American comedian, actor, and singer hailed by many as one of the greatest American comedians of all times. Although this flyer is from 1920, he’s a figure who hails to two decades earlier, an era of a cluster of composers, performers, music publishers, producers, all African-American, who for a period of 12 to 15 years were successfully producing shows on Broadway. And Bert Williams was a major figure in that world. Now the shows they were producing were largely grounded in what at the time were called “coon songs,” songs that traced a legacy back to blackface minstrelsy, that were filled with stereotypes that are extraordinarily derogative. And yet these black performers, even though it’s hard from today’s perspective to understand, like, why would someone of color participate in this world? It was a way to gain access into the world of entertainment, to get a job, to have a career. And for a performer of color at the turn of the 20th century, this is basically what you had to do.

So, Bert Williams was a star of this world. In this flyer he’s wearing a tuxedo and top hat, which is so interesting because on the one hand that gestures to the Zip Coop stereotype of blackface minstrelsy. That being the black urban dandy who’s a drug dealer and a pimp. Just these horrid images. Jim Crow was the rural counterpart to Zip Coon, the urban one. So, in a way he’s stepping into that Zip Coon role, but it also feels like he’s pressing beyond it. His tux isn’t tattered; it has some kind of elegance to it. This is Bert Williams as he’s making his way in a white world.

He was often the headliner of the show at the same time as he was handled in a very segregated way onstage and backstage. There’s some correspondence from him surviving, and he appeared for work one night with the Ziegfeld Follies and there was no one there. There was an Actor’s Equity strike, and no one had told him. He’s the man who’s at the top of the marquee, probably bringing in the most revenue for these productions, making them soar. He is functioning within a racially integrated environment, but he’s being made aware of his difference. It’s all really poignant when you just pause over the racial issues that this man was coping with.

[background music: “Genuine Negro jig” tune from the late 1800s, performed by Rhiannon Giddens. Track 13 on the CD Unmasking Jim Crow: Blackface Minstrelsy in American Popular Culture, January 26, 2016, Loeb Music Library]

JC: So now we’ve heard a little about blackface minstrelsy and the stock characters that often appeared.

HF: But how did this tradition begin? Who was the audience? What happened during the performances?

[end music]

CO: Well, this is a stage and performance practice that began in the U.S. in the 1830’s. Audiences were largely made up of working-class white males, and the productions most often happened in northern cities, and they had to do with caricaturing blacks. Trying to represent blackness but without any actual black people involved and no black music. A set of stereotypes very quickly ossified which continue to be with us. There were these stock characters; Jim Crow, who was the rural bumpkin, sort of a fool as he was presented on stage. Zip Coon, the urban dandy who was well dressed but a crook. And then for women, the roles were maids, nannies, prostitutes.

The volume of sheet music that was produced in the 19th century that related to the blackface minstrelsy tradition is just incredibly impressive. Many of the songs of Stephen Foster, you know, one of the great songwriters of the United States, were written for the minstrel stage. Many of those songs have lyrics that are unsingable today. So with a lot of Foster songs for example, the ones that most children sing in their elementary schools, the lyrics have been laundered so that they’re palatable and presentable. If you go back to the early lyrics, they’re filled with the “n” word and with lots of racial slurs and imagery of African-Americans that’s just hideous.

One of the major black composers was a man named Will Marion Cook, and most of what he wrote was set to these blackface, coon song lyrics. And they’re hideous. I have a colleague, Marva Carter who’s at Georgia State in Atlanta, who’s written a biography of Will Marion Cook, and one of her projects is to find some young black poet who can write new lyrics for some of the Will Marion Cook tunes which is a really good idea. At the same time as – in a way we need to hear the bad lyrics so we remember our history, painful as it is.

[background music: from “The Old Folks at Home” by Stephen Foster, performed by Henry Burr, 1910. From the Internet Archive ]

HF: Even though I grew up singing and hearing the Stephen Foster songs like ‘Oh, Susanna,’ and ‘Old Folks at Home,’ I really didn’t know that the lyrics had been changed. Like most school children, I simply learned them as American folk songs at school. But after talking with Professor Oja, I looked up the original lyrics and I was shocked. It’s one thing to know a song has a racist history, but something else to read such lyrics while reflecting on the lives of performers like Bert Williams.

[music swells, then fades out]

JC: But, as Professor Oja said, we have to confront our own history, painful as it may be.

HF: Since blackface minstrel shows were most commonly performed in northern cities, it isn’t surprising to find flyers and other ephemera in the Harvard Theatre Collection, housed here at Houghton.

JC: In fact, the flyer Professor Oja selected for the exhibition happens to be for a performance at the Shubert Theatre!

HF: Right here in downtown Boston!

JC: Clearly, the minstrel stage has undeniable links to this region.

HF: But when you think about traditional historical musicology programs like the one here at Harvard or other universities, what first comes to mind is usually the music of Western Europe.

JC: So how did the study of African-American music begin? Who brought it to Harvard?

CO: In terms of Harvard and its connection to the history of black music, sort of its role in chronicling it, one of the major early forces in that field was a woman named Eileen Southern who came here in the early 1970s. She was the first African-American woman tenured in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. She was hired jointly by my department and by African and African-American Studies, and she’s a figure whose image I wish were much more present on the Harvard campus.

She was a pioneer in writing history of African-American music, and doing so in ways that became very public which is important. So this is not insular history that’s reaching a very small audience, but has been taught in a lot of classes and has really made a broad impact. And also a history that was not constrained by studying only upper class, but looked at popular music, folk traditions, jazz. Hip hop didn’t exist in her day, but had it she would have written about it. So she was able to cross genres and sort of exist in categories which within the field of musicology used to be taboo. In order to study the history of black American music you need to be able to cut across those categories, and she did so really amazingly.

HF: The study of African-American music is certainly an interdisciplinary field, and it encompasses genres that are not always immediately associated with formal music study.

JC: Breaking from the European focus of traditional musicology requires new ways of thinking about music and its surrounding culture.

HF: But what does that mean for today’s musicologists? How will their students’ training differ from their own?

CO: All of us in our individual fields, probably especially people of my generation when fields were very balkanized, we have a certain kind of disciplinary training. Mine was in music history and had to do a lot with dealing with music manuscripts and music documents because that’s the way the field was constructed then. There was the beginning of a movement toward cultural history, and I’ve been happy to be a part of that over the years. Oh boy, there was very little discussion of race. I don’t think I ever took a course as a graduate student where there was any issue of race that was raised.

So as a result, as a teacher I’m kind of learning on the job and continually pushing myself a little further into areas that I might not necessarily be comfortable in based on my training, but just trying to expand beyond that training. I think for graduate students today there’s much more interdisciplinarity. There’s much more of a language for discussing race and gender and social class. Even undergraduates are schooled in that language, but that’s pretty recent.

JC: It’s true. The language we use to discuss race is important, and the vocabulary is always developing and shifting. Even with the best intentions, it’s easy to say the wrong thing or lack the words to describe something.

HF: So how does a professor learn to discuss these issues “on the job?” How is diversity made a part of a discipline so steeped in Western European traditions?

CO: My first teaching job was at Brooklyn College at the City University of New York, an institution that has gone through so many changes over the decades. It used to be, alongside City College, one of the elite schools for the working class. So my classes were made up of ever-shifting pools of new immigrants. And so one of the classes I was asked to teach was a core course in music history which had been a “Highlights of Western European Music” course, and I ethically could not do that. So I kind of reconfigured it for me in a way that had to do with teaching elements of music, but doing so in a cross-cultural way and often trying to talk about the traditions represented by students in my classes.

So that was, for me, kind of the beginning of realizing that my own education had been thoroughly Europeanized. Even though I was an Americanist from the beginning, I took very few courses in American music, even in white American music. And so, anyway, recognizing that that education had left me in a position that I didn’t really want to spend the rest of my career in. I wanted to broaden, and I wanted to reach this increasingly diverse pool of students.

HF: Incorporating non-Western examples into music history classes expands students’ ideas of what music can be. When a tradition is represented in an academic setting, it is granted legitimacy.

JC: Students have the opportunity to realize that there are many, many kinds of quote/unquote classical music.

HF: As simple as it seems, using an array of musical examples from a variety of traditions effectively broadens the cultural focus of a course.

JC: But bringing racial issues into the classroom involves much more than using a diverse selection of examples. Even in our brief discussion on Bert Williams and the minstrel stage we have touched on social ills like racism, segregation, and lasting stereotypes.

HF: And what about the legal structures behind those institutions, like the “Jim Crow” laws which enforced racial segregation?

JC: And antimiscegenation laws criminalizing interracial marriage?

HF: These topics are hard, and often divisive. How can they be effectively approached in the classroom?

CO: Increasingly I am just very committed to bringing issues of race into every class I teach. It’s not something that is difficult to do in terms of finding issues to raise because it’s so omnipresent, really. In recent years I’ve done quite a lot of teaching of American musical theater, and I’m trying to teach it as a racially integrated course. So we deal with the great white shows of the past, like Oklahoma, but we also deal with black musical theater and its history and then we deal with the issue of racial integration on the stage. Showboat, from 1927, is a sort of signal work because it included a number of black characters, it dealt with the issue of miscegenation so it thematically was dealing with a tricky racial issue, it had a gorgeous black chorus. At the same time, everybody was segregated on stage. There was a black chorus, there was a white chorus. There was not an integrated chorus.

Seeing the process of change over time, you know, perceiving how political and racial pressures in the surrounding culture made a difference on Broadway is an important theme in that course. Jumping ahead, another really famous show, West Side Story in 1957. So there’s a show that deals with Latino and Latina culture. It’s dealing with gang violence; it’s trying to really confront the urban nitty-gritty and social realities and difficulties of its era. It’s since come to be seen as racist. So the perception of a show can change over time. It was written by a white team; a lot of the actors were white and wore makeup to look browner, at the same time as it had a racially integrated cast. So it’s a fascinating moment in time when there was a realization that things had to change and that racial issues needed to be addressed on Broadway. And yet the ways that it was possible to do so then weren’t sustainable over the long haul. You know, minute by minute we’re changing in our perceptions of race.

JC: The way we understand race and difference is always shifting and developing. And it’s a topic that has been at the forefront of national conversation in recent years.

HF: As an institution of higher learning, it’s our job to raise awareness of these issues in our students. But how do we accomplish that in ways that encourage dialogue and allow students the opportunity to develop their own opinions?

CO: I’m a historian, and so my classes have to do with history. Now it might not be deep history, it might not be centuries ago, but it’s a few years in the past. So in my classes, whatever we discuss that has a historical focus to it can often, I hope, help students perceive the present day situation they’re living in. Organizations like Black Lives Matter, the rhetoric of the presidential campaign that just concluded, there are many issues that are just recycling. Language recycles and we think we’ve gotten over civil rights hurdles, and yet we realize “Oops! That one’s not fixed.”

Taking a course that looks at racial issues within the context of music enables, I hope, students to be able to have a critical perspective on the world they live in and take the long view, which with difficult topics you need to. The rights of citizens aren’t achieved and activated overnight. It’s a constant struggle, and I suppose in some ways you could say, well, it’s grim to revisit that history and think about those struggles. Maybe, but it’s realistic and it gives students a sense of how they are going to move forward in the world they’re living in. And often with anything we read or discuss in a class, it might come back an affect us two decades later. There’s no immediate cause and effect, you just hope that there’s been some impact and that students leave feeling a little richer and maybe asking a few more questions than they might have before they started the class.

[background music: “Julie” written and performed by Rhiannon Giddens, from Track 11 on the CD Unmasking Jim Crow: Blackface Minstrelsy in American Popular Culture, January 26, 2016, Loeb Music Library]

HF: We’ve very grateful to Professor Carol Oja for coming in and talking with us, and for choosing an item for this exhibition that celebrates an important American performer, but also brings up issues about race and our history in this United States that are so important to know and understand.

JC: It’s never an easy thing to confront the very real history of one’s own country.

HF: Our thanks especially to Rhiannon Giddens and Nonesuch records for their kind permission to use her amazing performance of her music in today’s podcast. You heard a couple of pieces recorded in 2015 at the opening of an exhibition at the Harvard Music Department, entitled “Unmasking Jim Crow: Blackface Minstrelsy in American Popular Culture.”

JC: Thanks also to the Internet Archive for the archival audio of Stephen Foster’s Old Folks at home by Henry Burr, from 1910. We really appreciate the ready availability of the sounds of our history. Thanks everyone for listening!

HF: And if you’re in the area, we hope you’ll stop by to see this Bert Williams flyer in our current exhibition…

JC: HIST 75H: A Masterclass on Houghton Library

HF: Which is free and open to the public until April 22. Whether you are tuning in from near or far, we hope you will join us for the next episode of Houghton75.

[music continues to end]