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Appropriateness a minstrel song, specifically Foster's Glendy Burk

I'm considering programming Stephen Foster's "Glendy Burk," which was written for a minstrel show in 1860.
 
If you're not familiar with it, here are the lyrics: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Glendy_Burk
 
One singer said to me that while he was willing to perform the piece, he had a hard time with the verse that described violence against blacks: 
Dey make me mow in de hay field here And knock my head wid de flail,
I'll go wha dey work wid de sugar And de cane And roll on de cotton bale.
(Aside - A flail is not a whip, but a threshing tool, that when used improperly, knocks you on the head.)
 
Another person in the group is considering at best not singing and telling her friends not to come to the concert, and at worst leaving the group.  For her the idea that it was for a minstrel show crosses the line.
 
Most of the chorus doesn't care.  For the record, we're all white, and ages 25-70.
 
I feel neither invested in the piece, though I like it, nor stubborn.  I'm just curious if we've reached the point where any minstrel song, such as Glendy Burk or Oh, Susanna, is de facto unacceptable.  I've read a lot, including the PBS web pages about Foster.  Now I'm looking for your thoughts, collective choral consciousness.
 
Thanks,
Ray Fahrner
 
 
 
Replies (5): Threaded | Chronological
on February 22, 2012 7:08am
I've performed this piece as part of a medley. I confess I didn't research it. The arrangement wasn't written in dialect and the offensive verse was omitted, so I thought it was a regular, traditional sea chanty. Period. What are the legal ramifications of performing your arrangement in this way?
on February 22, 2012 3:06pm
Here is the Apple dictionary's definition of "flail":
 
flail |flāl|
noun
a threshing tool consisting of a wooden staff with a short heavy stick swinging from it.
• a similar device used as a weapon or for flogging.
• a machine for threshing or slashing, with a similar action.
 
verb
1 wave or swing or cause to wave or swing wildly : [ intrans. ] his arms were flailing helplessly | [ trans. ] he flailed his arms and drove her away.
• [ intrans. ] flounder; struggle uselessly : I was flailing about in the water | he flailed around on the snow.
2 [ trans. ] beat; flog : he escorted them, flailing their shoulders with his cane.
 
I was looking for Stephen Foster songs on iTunes, but nothing seems to show up.  
 
Drop the idea of performing the piece.  If music like that is ever performed again it can be only as a reminder of the anguish of those terrible times.   The current generations don't need that reminder.
 
 
 
 
on February 23, 2012 5:52am
Just drop out the offensive verse and the dialect. Consider "Oh Susanna": it has been successfully "reclaimed" by American culture. The offensive second verse is never sung or even printed, the problematic fourth verse has been easily amended to make it acceptable (when it is included at all), and the dialect spelling has been normalized to standard spelling. The result is a pleasantly nonsensical kid song to which no one (to my knowledge) objects. "Swanee River" has had to underg more radical surgery, but the melody is too beautiful to give up. I would be shocked if anyone advocated performing "Oh Susanna" in dialect with the original text. That would be applying a misguided notion of "fidelity to the score". Stephen Foster was no Beethoven; he didn't expect his songs to be performed "exactly right". His words and tunes started drifting off the moment the songs were published, and they have entered the folk tradition the way the folk (that is, we) want them. If the tune to "Glendy Burk" is good (I don't know it, but Foster certainly was an excellent tunesmith) then just neutralize the problematic words and keep singing. (Some had to, and did, take exactly that step with "Oh Susanna" and it turned out all right.)
on February 23, 2012 4:20pm
Nathaniel:  That's a very healthy approach, and with some songs it works just fine.  Others are more difficult.  The Virginia Legislature, in its infinite wisdom, decided that "Carry Me Back to Old Virginy" was too dated to retain as our state song, although it was the choice of the people and was written by a Black song writer.  (Of course Virginia was also the origin of "massive resistance" to school integration back in the '50s and '60s, which says something interesting about 'the people.')
 
But there are a great many popular songs from the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th which would be VERY difficult to present in concert today without a lot of explanations that would amount to apologies for singing them.  One of our faculty members used to collect such songs, and some of them are in outer space in terms of political correctness! 
 
Our American "melting pot" was in fact a very lumpy stew indeed, and song writers were very successful in selling songs that poked fun at ANY ethnic group or social class that didn't happen to be their own.  Including jabs at Near Eastern cultures of which they had exactly NO first-hand familiarity.  It's one of the real 'charms' of our adolescence as a nation of many immigrants from many parts of the earth, every one apparently looking for someone else to feel superior to!  Even back in the '50s a lot of popular barbershop songs were of this type, and no one thought anything of it.  And of course some folks seem to object to the Aaron Copland songs that simply reflect 19th century attitudes toward women through 19th century texts.
All the best,
John
 
 
on February 24, 2012 5:49am
Ray,
A different perspective: You may or may not have heard of an "Informance."  It is a designated section of a performance in which the choir conductor and choir combine singing with providing relevant information (education) to a concert-attending audience/community about anything.
 
Example 1: WAAAY MANY moons ago (mid 1960s) I and the high school choir I was conducting presented an Informance (before it was called that) that demonstrated how singing in that choir included learning some rather sophisticated musical skills, and...learning what expressive singing vs inexpressive singing sounded like.
 
Example 2: In 1981, the MacPhail Center Chamber Singers (Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA) and I presented an entire concert that was an Informance. We sang selections of music that very roughly traced the history of group singing in the United States from lined-out congregational hymn singing in the 1600s through sentimental songs of the late 19th century. The concert's program included brief printed information about each song and its placement in time and style. A 'spiritual' was sung ["Soon One Mornin'" arranged by Gail Kubik, Parker-Shaw Series, Lawson-Gould] (I call them 'slave songs' for educational reasons) and it was sung with dialect and in the quasi-improvisitory, real-human-being style that is suggested by Kubik's notation--not in an 'official' best-practice choral singing style with precise timing, diction, and so on.  Before we sang it, I spoke about some of the the realities of slavery that are reflected in the piece. Later, we sang a variety of Stephen Foster songs, including of all pieces, "Glendy Burk."  The reality of minstrel groups and shows was addressed such as: before the civil war, African-Americans performed the 'comic roles' in professional touring minstrel groups, but after the war, white entertainers in black-face with exaggerated lips and dialect performed those roles. That was but one such educational moment in the concert.
 
Suggestion that may be more trouble than it's worth in your upcoming concert, but maybe for later: Sing the song (and 1 or 2 others like it?), but involve one or more students in presenting an Informance about the painful racism that was inherent in minstrel shows, including the definitional and connotational information about the 'flail' that Fred provided above--the interested students write and present the Informace with educational guidance from their teacher.
 
Just a thought.
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