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The Black Perspective in Music

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Cover of the first issue of The Black Perspective in Music, Spring 1973

In 1972, Southern attended the Symposium on African and Afro-American music at the University of Ghana, later calling it one of the most exciting invitations she received after the publication of The Music of Black Americans the previous year. “One thing that we decided [at the conference] is that we should have a publication that would put this down for posterity,” she remembered later, “then nothing happened to the publication.” Southern was determined to realize this ambition, and in spring 1973 the first issue of The Black Perspective in Music was published by The Foundation for Research in the Afro-American Creative Arts, Inc., a non-profit run by Eileen and Joseph Southern. It featured five papers from the 1972 conference. (According to the front matter of that issue, the Foundation was incorporated on July 1, 1971, suggesting that Southern had a journal in mind even before the symposium in Ghana.) 

In 1973, there were virtually no academic journals for publishing articles about African American music. The Annual Review of Jazz Studies first appeared in 1982; the journal American Music, published by the Society for American Music, began in 1983; and the CBMR Digest, published by the Center for Black Music Research at Columbia College Chicago, debuted in 1988. The leading publication in Southern’s academic field, The Journal of the American Musicological Society, which first appeared in 1948, had by the early 1970s issued so few articles about any kind of music from the U.S. that those titles could be counted on one hand. 

The Black Perspective in Music was a family affair from the start. As managing editor, Joseph Southern handled “all of the business arrangements,” and he was supported with computer access from LaGuardia College (CUNY), where he taught. In a 1988 letter to her Harvard colleague John Ward, Southern wrote, “Joe . . .does most of the typing (computering?) for my NEH project and BPIM, so all I have to do is think!” This letter also offers a glimpse into the “offices” of the journal: “About an hour ago I left the BPIM workroom (located in our basement),” she began, “where papers cover every conceivable space and the computer clatters away, to take a seat in my study (on the second floor), where all is quiet and I can look down on the back yard from my window.” 

It took several years to get the journal up and running, and one challenge was simply to get the word out. According to Southern’s editorial in the first issue, the goals of the publication were “few and, hopefully realistic”:

 . . . to become a source of current history of Afro-American and African music and to provide information periodically about the past of this music; to improve the conditions for the performance, publication, and recording of an important area of American and African music that hitherto has not received its due share of attention; to serve as a clearing house for persons engaged in research who have important (or not so important) things to say about black musicians and their music.

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Letter from Eileen Southern to James Booker III (February 25, 1974).

In this letter to a potential author from February 1974, Southern describes the goal of the journal: “to serve as a source of history and current information about the musical activities of black musicians in all areas of music.” The journal title, (which was originally going to be The Black Perspective on Music), referred to “an understanding of what the black musician is doing according to the essential nature of the music with which he is involved rather than according to the standards imposed by the establishment.” Submissions should appeal to Black and white readers, she cautioned.

Also in her letter to Booker, Southern acknowledges readership is primarily academic, including some practicing musicians. Indeed, interest for the first few years was limited, as Southern later told Judith Walzer: 

We were naive in that we thought that there was so much interest in black music we would have no trouble in getting this magazine going. For the first year or so-maybe two or three years—we only had two or three hundred subscribers. But I must say, some of the schools like Harvard and Yale and Princeton were charter subscribers from the beginning; they had faith. And some people had faith, and they subscribed even before the first issue came out.

Faith. That’s what much of Southern’s career demanded.

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Letter from Marion Brown to Eileen Southern (May 16, 1973).

Southern received suggestions from colleagues near and far. In this letter, African American saxophonist Marion Brown (who was interviewed by Linda Tucci for the spring 1973 issue of BPIM) recommends contacts from outside the United States whom Southern might approach to publicize the journal. Brown was a gifted and fascinating figure in New York City’s jazz scene, especially in the 1960s.

Southern received mail related to BPIM from a wide range of interested readers, both within the academic community and beyond. One striking missive came to Southern in 1974 from an incarcerated individual with an interest in music, asking for a subscription to the journal. According to US government data, in 1974 Black men had a 13.4% lifetime chance of going to state or federal prison for the first time while the same statistic for white men was only 2.2%;1 scholar Michelle Alexander has termed the systemic racism at the root of this striking inequality “the New Jim Crow.” To protect the privacy of the author, we have excerpted the letter here, rather than including the entire document:

Dear Ms. Southern:

Reasonally [sic], through an old Black Scholar, I was reading about your Journal of “The Black Perspective in Music,” which [have] been in progress now over a year or so. No doubt, the advertising of the journal has really attracted my attention because music is my bag.

I’ve been struggling hard to gain all the knowledge [that] can be within this art. Due to my present situation, which I’ve been incarcerated now 35 years, I’ve been [lack] of training as well as a paper literature. Most of my knowledge is self-taught. Ms. Southern, I’m mostly on my own, and I do have to struggle for everything I get. To make a long conversation short, would you help me out, by sending me a Subscription of your Journal, “The Black Perspective in Music”? This would mean so much to me. If possible, I’d like to get your back issues from volume 1, Number 1; Spring 1973.

One day (hopefully next fall) when I get out, I’ll be in a position to reimburse you.

  1. Thomas P. Bonczar, “Prevalence of Imprisonment in the U.S. Population, 1974-2001.” Bureau of Justice Statistics: Special Report. U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs. August 2003.

Contents of The Black Perspective in Music

Issues of The Black Perspective in Music opened with two to five scholarly articles on topics as wide-ranging as Nigerian folk music, student attitudes toward music in predominantly Black colleges, and the double bass in early jazz. In his 1986 retrospective on the journal’s first ten years, music scholar Ron Byrnside noted that while non-US musics could benefit from more representation, “one of the most laudable things about BPIM is its acceptance of these many musical types as equals. Nowhere is there the hint that one kind of music is more worthy of study than some other kind. This is not only refreshing, it is visionary.”2 

Next came several feature sections, which varied somewhat but generally included:  Conversations (interviews, sometimes by Southern, of well-known Black composers and performers); In Retrospect (transcribed archival materials introduced by Southern or another scholar); a list of new books; book reviews; music reviews; record reviews; obituaries (with longer essays as In Memoriam); new music; new recordings; Commentary (announcements of awards, premieres, etc.); a list of doctoral dissertations; Correspondence (letters to the editor). 

In the exchange of letters below, Southern recommends that potential music graduate student Robert Reid explore the BPIM list of dissertations to get a sense of what programs might be a good fit for his interests. “Living in Alaska really keeps me out of the mainstream of any music research activity, and rather complicates the problem of seeking out pertinent information. So, this is an earnest appeal!” he wrote.

  1. Ron Byrnside, “‘The Black Perspective in Music’: The First Ten Years.” Black Music Research Journal 6 (1986): 11-21.

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Letter from Robert Reid to Eileen Southern (January 13, 1975).

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Letter from Eileen Southern to Robert Reid (February 27, 1975).

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Letter from Robert Reid to Eileen Southern (May 4, 1975).

Acquiring and maintaining subscribers like Reid was among Southern’s main concerns throughout the journal’s run. “The only question” about the journal’s future, she wrote in her editorial in the first issue, “is whether those who endorse the stated aims of the journal will support it. In summary, how the journal develops will depend upon the active collaboration of all persons, black and white, who are interested in the activities of black musicians.” Byrnside noted in his retrospective that “in the first ten years, 130 different authors have contributed to BPIM, eighty of them black and fifty white.”

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Letter from Ken McIntyre to Eileen Southern (January 31, 1978).

Keeping readers happy sometimes meant Southern had to compromise, as seen in this exchange with the Black saxophonist and educator Makanda Ken McIntyre (1931-2001). McIntyre, whom Southern asked to be the jazz editor of the journal, expresses concern with the very term “jazz,” which he calls “an abstract term that has been dropped on our music by European Americans.” Southern acknowledges McIntyre’s point, but responds diplomatically, noting that few current subscribers (largely white institutions) would understand his approach: “before BPIM tries to solve the problem [of Black music terminology], we have to develop a [larger] readership.” 

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Letter from Eileen Southern to Ken McIntyre (February 4, 1978).

Southern as Editor


Letter from Eileen Southern to Eddie Meadows (March 11, 1975).

Speaking about BPIM in 1981, Southern stated: “The standards are very, very high. It's very difficult to get published, so people tell me, but we only publish three or four articles in each issue, so we have to publish things that are worthwhile. And the magazine has a good reputation amongst scholarly journals.” While not every submission was accepted for publication, Southern did work to include as many contributions to the journal as possible. In this letter, she encourages jazz educator Eddie Meadows to submit an interview about his experiences. She also asserts her impeccable standards for the journal.

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Letter from Mark Gridley to Eileen Southern (April 30, 1984).

In this letter, author Mark Gridley thanks Southern for the “enormous amount of work” she put into his article (with Wallace Rave), “Towards Identification of African Traits in Early Jazz” (Spring 1984). His message also serves as a reminder of the time-consuming labor involved in assembling journal issues before digital technology, including email.

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Letter from Eileen Southern to Andrew Frierson (November 1, 1982).

To keep BPIM afloat, the Southerns had to personally contribute a significant amount of money to the running costs of the journal. During the 1970s, the royalties from The Music of Black Americans (approximately $3,000-$4,000 per year) “really helped us to get the magazine off the ground,” Southern recalled. By the early 1980s, she estimated about half of the journal costs were funded by the two of them, with the other half coming from their 1,000 subscriptions. A year’s subscription began at $5.00 in 1973 and ended at $8.50 ($10.00 for international subscribers) in 1989. In this letter to Andrew Frierson (1924 – 2018), Southern declines to offer financial assistance to Independent Black Opera Singers, Inc. due in part to her financial obligations to BPIM.

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Letter from Elwood Peterson to Eileen Southern (September 20, 1974).

Donations also helped to fund the journal, as with this offer from concert singer and Pomona College professor Elwood Peterson, who wrote to thank Southern for her work and discuss mutual musician friends. Southern was so touched by his words that she printed a portion of his letter in BPIM a few years later.

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Letter from Eileen Southern to Elwood Peterson (September 28, 1974).

Lack of funding was what ultimately shuttered the journal in 1990. “As publisher-editors, we are distressed that the journal must be discontinued, but the ever-increasing costs of publication leave us no other option,” Southern wrote in the final issue. “From the beginning, The Black Perspective in Music has been a non-commercial enterprise, dependent solely upon subscription fees and the financial support of our small, family foundation.” In its eighteen-year run, BPIM fostered community among a growing group of scholars of Black music. “BPIM was bold from the beginning, both in its audacity to exist and its content,” wrote Samuel Floyd in 1992. Southern herself foresaw the legacy of the journal when she spoke about it in 1981: “It's still not paying for itself, but I think that's our contribution to black history. And whatever we have to say is down in black and white.”

Unless otherwise noted, quotations are from Southern’s extended interview with Judith Walzer, which took place in 1981; the original tapes are housed in Harvard’s Henry A. Murray Research Archive. Facsimiles are from Southern’s personal archive at the Harvard University Archives.