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Detail of the Boys Choir of Harlem and Scott Joplin from The Music of Black Americans, 3rd edition

The Music of Black Americans

When Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in April 1968, Eileen Southern was teaching at Brooklyn College, City University of New York (CUNY). As an answer to student protests and social unrest following King’s death, the music faculty held meetings to determine a response and brainstorm possible new course offerings centered on Black music. Southern remembered that some of her colleagues expressed the belief that there was no material of significance to teach, and at one point stated, according to Southern, “there’s nothing to Black music.” “I was very, very hurt,” she said later, “finally I just got up and walked out of the meeting. I was really furious at all these racist remarks.” When she visited the library to consult books on Black music to prove her colleagues wrong, however, she found very little material. William Monroe Trotter’s Music and Some Highly Musical People (1878), Maud Cuney Hare’s Negro Musicians and Their Music (1936), and Alain Locke’s The Negro and His Music (1936) were the only books on the subject published to that point, and they were not widely available. Southern did not end up teaching a class on Black music at Brooklyn College; instead, what began as course preparation led to extensive research that became the basis for The Music of Black Americans.

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The title page of Southern's 1941 University of Chicago Master's thesis, "The Use of Negro Folksong in Symphonic Forms." Courtesy the University of Chicago.

Southern started by drawing on research from her Master’s thesis at the University of Chicago, which focused on the use of African American folk song in symphonic music. She also began visiting libraries to track down primary sources. “It was very, very difficult to find materials. So I found myself going to non-musical sources and eventually I began to . . . piece things here, a little bit here and a little bit there and so forth,” she later explained. Southern especially relied on materials from what was then called the Schomburg Collection of Negro History and Literature (a division of the New York Public Library that is known today as the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture) and libraries in Philadelphia. She also drew upon interviews and surveys that she distributed to living Black composers and performers. “I hope that as a black musicologist I can tell our story with a different slant than is found in the studies and histories written by whites,” she wrote to composer T. J. Anderson in fall 1969.

Organized chronologically, the first edition of The Music of Black Americans featured four sections: “Song in a Strange Land, 1619-1775”; “Let My People Go, 1776-1866”; “Blow Ye the Trumpet, 1867-1919”; “Lift Every Voice, 1920–.” The book focused on delivering facts and information grounded in archival research, and in doing so, Southern followed the model of her mentor Gustave Reese, whose books about Medieval and Renaissance music were dense volumes, laden with data.

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The Music of Black Americans: A History, 1st edition.

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Letter from John Hope Franklin to Eileen Southern (June 17, 1968).

It took Southern some time to find an interested publisher: one small firm rejected her manuscript for being “too scholarly,” in her words. In this letter, the noted Black historian John Hope Franklin, who had been Southern’s colleague at Brooklyn College, suggests a contact at Random House.

Another suggestion came from one of Southern’s mentors at New York University, the musicologist Jan LaRue (a specialist in the classical era of Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven), who insisted that Southern reach out to W. W. Norton, a major publisher of books about music. Southern had worked previously with Norton on a chapter for a Festschrift in honor of her dissertation advisor Gustave Reese (Aspects of Medieval and Renaissance Music: A Birthday Offering to Gustave Reese, 1966). 

In the end, W. W. Norton did publish Southern’s work, and she later credited her editor David Hamilton with helping to find a balance among the many types of music discussed in the book:

In working on it, for one thing I was going to kind of down play the jazz because I didn't know that much about jazz, and [Hamilton] insisted that I bring in the jazz and the blues and everything, so there would be a complete book of all black-American music, not just the classical music, and that I bring in the folk music as well as the performers, the well-known performers and the composers. So it was through his guidance that I made the book a very comprehensive book instead of just a one-sided book. And now that I look back on it, it probably would not have been as well accepted had I concentrated on one thing.

Indeed, Southern achieved impressive breadth in The Music of Black Americans: the book covers music in West Africa, music of the Black church, minstrelsy, spirituals, blues, gospel, ragtime, jazz, opera, and beyond. Both music creators and performers receive attention.

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Handbill for a concert by Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield, 1853.

Southern also included many illustrations, including playbills, sheet music covers, illustrations from periodicals, and photographs. The first edition featured a folio of illustrations at the center, and subsequent editions placed the images close to related texts. The number of illustrations increased with each edition. This handbill, an advertisement for singer Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield (1824-1876), first appeared in the 2nd edition, and it provides readers with a glimpse into the world of early Black concert musicians in the mid-nineteenth century. The Music of Black Americans also features abundant musical examples. “The majority of the folksongs used as musical examples are complete and, therefore, can—and should—be sung by the reader,” Southern wrote in the introduction.

With The Music of Black Americans, Southern had a mixed response to the publisher’s production standards, implying there might have been bias. “They didn’t give it the kind of attention that they give their other books,” she later observed, “but it was so much better than anything I anticipated.” The book sold well, she noted, in the thousands instead of the hundreds, and MOBA’s availability in paperback as well as hardback meant to Southern that “blacks could afford it.” As one review noted, the $4.45 paperback was less than half the price of the $10.00 hardback (about $64.00 in 2020).

Scholarly Reviews of the First Edition

In the 1971 preface to the first edition of The Music of Black Americans—a text reprinted in the second edition—Southern stated two main goals for her book:

 . . . first, to serve as an introduction and guide to those who wish to become better informed about the history of black American music makers; second, to serve as a much-needed textbook for college courses that treat the subject of Afro-American music.

In short, Southern sought to serve a broad audience, especially college students, and most reviewers agreed she hit the mark. A reviewer in Publisher’s Weekly stated that MOBA “is so gracefully written and its information so enormously exciting that it could have a wide general readership.”1 Another reviewer wrote in The Journal of Music Education that “the lucid prose and the succinct explanations contribute a great deal toward making The Music of Black Americans a highly readable book.”2 All of Southern’s reviewers, whether praising or finding fault in her work, grappled with what it meant for a book to serve as “an introduction and guide” to Black music. Could a single volume accomplish this formidable task? Should it present historical data alone or an interpretation of this data? To what extent did a book about Black music need to mention white music traditions?

Southern aimed to introduce readers to over three hundred years of Black music history, and she acknowledged in her preface that she could not begin to cover every genre or musician. Some reviewers accepted this stance, agreeing that MOBA highlighted areas of research that might later be investigated by other scholars. “While the book can be read straight through, it will probably be much more widely used as a reference book and as a book to be dipped into at any place for pleasure and information,” wrote historian Henry Kmen in The Journal of Southern History.3 Writing in the Library Journal, Charles M. Weisenberg called MOBA’s coverage “impressive,” yet he felt that “the book’s scope required that many aspects be touched upon too lightly to satisfy the specialist.”4

At a moment in time when so little had been written about Black music in the United States, Southern opted to deliver information, mostly drawn from a wide range of archival sources. She privileged a fact-based chronicle over extensive interpretation, and that decision turned out to be divisive. At the same time, as a Black woman working within an academy that was overwhelmingly white, male, and focused on European history, she would likely have been criticized no matter what approach she took. Whatever the case, responses to MOBA were mixed. Marian Tally Brown, writing in the Journal of Negro History, supported Southern’s decision to deliver historical data, believing that it allowed students and instructors to draw their own conclusions and ask questions. “Southern has presented us with a text whose approach almost assuredly guarantees administrative acceptance within the classroom whether at the college or secondary level because the book is without extensive subjective, theoretical, or analytical comment. Since this is such a clear-cut historical approach, the potential of its success . . . lies in the personal interest, creativity, and innovativeness of the teacher,” she wrote.5

  1. Review of The Music of Black Americans: A History, by Eileen Southern. Publisher’s Weekly 198, no. 24 (December 14, 1970): 38.

  2. George Walker. Review of The Music of Black Americans: A History, by Eileen Southern. Journal of Research in Music Education 20, no. 3 (Autumn 1972): 410-411.

  3. Henry A. Kmen. Review of The Music of Black Americans: A History, by Eileen Southern. The Journal of Southern History 37, no. 4 (November 1971): 674-675.

  4. Charles M. Weisenberg. Review of The Music of Black Americans: A History, by Eileen Southern. Library Journal (March 1, 1971): 837.

  5. Marian Tally Brown. Review of The Music of Black Americans: A History, by Eileen Southern. The Journal of Negro History 57, no. 3 (July 1972): 306-307.

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Marian Tally Brown's review of The Music of Black Americans in The Journal of Negro History.

By contrast, ethnomusicologist Charles Keil (in the journal Ethnomusicology) expected Southern’s volume to contain much more scholarly interpretation, and he wrote a blistering review: “as a history, Ms. Southern's book is a classic in the George-Washington-Carver-invented-the-peanut-in-1873 genre—all when, where, and who, very little how, and almost no why at all,” he argued.1 Keil complained that interpreting the “copious data” Southern presented would require another book; this was, as it happened, one of Southern’s aims, as articulated in her preface: “perhaps the present study will stimulate . . . general research and investigation into special aspects of black American music.”

Indeed, these two reviews present a study in contrasts of tone, with Brown being courteous (calling Southern “Dr.”) and Keil condescending (calling her “Ms.”). On the subject of footnotes, which many reviewers wished had been included, Brown suggested constructively: “Perhaps in a later revision Dr. Southern could list bibliographical and footnote information in a more clear-cut and usable manner for advanced scholars.” Keil, on the other hand, continued to be dismissive, writing that MOBA contained “dozens” of “fragments that will tantalize future historians of black music in the United States. Unfortunately, there are no footnotes so most of the basic research will have to be done all over again.” Keil’s review in particular reads as an example of the disrespectful attitudes that Southern, as a Black woman, faced throughout her career.

In order to create an “introduction and guide” to the immense subject of African American music, Southern worked with her Norton editor to achieve equal coverage among genres outside her personal strength in classical music. Some reviewers still felt the balance was off, however, with not enough focus on popular traditions. “Young people will probably be disappointed that there is not more said about some of the popular rhythm and blues and jazz musicians since 1950,” wrote Black studies scholar Ione Vargus in The Black Scholar.2 “Groups like the Supremes and Temptations are mentioned so incidentally that they are not listed in the index.” Music scholar Byron Cantrell (Yearbook of the International Folk Music Council) thought that Southern’s discussion of popular and “serious music” together was confusing, and that the contents should be split with “serious music as a separate section.”3

This mixture of genres, however, was intentional, as Southern stated in her preface. Vargus acknowledged that stance in her review. “The author hesitates to define or categorize black music and suggests in the preface,” Vargus wrote, “that her approach of bringing together the strands of all types of music would serve as a basis for discussion of a definition of music.” How to define Black music, however, was a constant theme in reviews of MOBA. Continuing his dismissive rebuke, Keil found “no definition of black music except the racist one that people of a particular phenotype make it.” Henry Kmen recognized the challenge: “The only problem [of MOBA] comes in defining black music. Like everyone else who has tackled social music in America, Professor Southern cannot really get the black and white clearly disentangled."

  • Charles Keil. Review of The Music of Black Americans: A History, by Eileen Southern. Ethnomusicology 18, no. 1 (January 1974): 165-66.

  • Ione Vargus. Review of The Music of Black Americans: A History, by Eileen Southern. The Black Scholar 3, no. 10 (1972): 54.

  • Byron Cantrell. Review of The Music of Black Americans: A History, by Eileen Southern. Yearbook of the International Folk Music Council 4 (1972): 175-176.

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    James C. Downey's review of The Music of Black Americans in the Anuario Interamericano de Investigacion Musical.

    As Kmen suggests, closely tied to the question of “what is Black music?” was that of its relationship to the white classical-music tradition of Western Europe. Vargus questioned why so many white musicians received mention, both in exploiting Black music but also in helping “blacks get started in the field.” Vargus further wondered if this approach was meant “to help sell the book, . . . to present a ‘balanced’ picture, or is it a subtle way of promoting integration?” James C. Downey, writing in Anuario Interamericano de Investigacion Musical, expressed concern that MOBA gave too much space to white traditions, ending up with “a reconciliation, not a confrontation.”9 Downey’s review is also striking for its stance: while he praises MOBA for filling a void, he too is condescending at times, calling Southern “single-minded” in developing a “comprehensive but simplistic outline.” Downey expressed a belief that what he viewed as the vital characteristics of Black music “cannot be told in the form of a computer print-out” or “with the cold residue” of archival sources. Downey further hoped that MOBA would help him understand his own “desire to be black” which stemmed from his love of Black music. This sentiment reinforced damaging stereotypes that Black musicians are innately musical, and it suggested that being Black could be tried on like a costume instead of acknowledging the lived experience of the musicians he admired.

    Regardless of various criticisms and small issues that many reviewers identified, several paused to mark the significance of Southern’s work. Writing in Notes, the musicologist Dominique-René de Lerma, himself a scholar of Black music, identified many errors and omissions in his review, but he underscored why MOBA marked a watershed moment: publishing with W. W. Norton was a major feat, he explained, and the fact that Southern was “an acknowledged scholar, already established in traditional musicology” lent legitimacy to her project. “Perhaps this indicates the subject [Black music] may soon be musicologically above ground and seriously treated in the curricular, research, and performance programs of America’s musical establishments,” he wrote.10

    Writing in The Journal of Research in Music Education, George Walker, who was among the composers discussed in the book, signaled the affirming power of The Music of Black Americans:

    Southern has performed a labor of love in amassing and organizing so much that is pertinent to a modern understanding of the black musician in America. It is a laudable effort and one that affirms the conviction that the cultural achievements of black people cannot be demeaned.

    1. James C. Downey, Review of The Music of Black Americans: A History, by Eileen Southern. Anuario Interamericano de Investigación Musical (1971): 175-177.

    1. Dominique-René de Lerma. Review of The Music of Black Americans: A History, by Eileen Southern. Notes 28, no. 1 (September 1971): 43.

    Readers' Reception

    Following the publication of The Music of Black Americans in early 1971, Southern was soon inundated with invitations to speak at conferences and in classrooms across the country. As it turned out, she gave these lectures on Black music to largely white audiences. “I went to Nebraska; I went to Kansas; I went every place. I went to Kansas twice. I didn't go to too many black colleges, but I went to major white colleges. I also went to public places,” she recalled. 

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    Letter from Eileen Southern to Andrij Szul (January 25, 1971).

    Writing to Andrij Szul, a former student who hoped Southern would visit the community college where he taught, she warned, “I am not an entertainer. I have done some lecturing during the past months, and although audiences have been receptive, I realize it was because of my seriousness and my subject matter rather than my ability to make them laugh. In other words, I’m no match for Eubie Blake or Billy Taylor.” 

    Southern received praise locally as well. The Amsterdam News, one of the country’s leading Black newspapers published in New York City, reported on an April 1971 celebration hosted by educators Thomas and Jean Leach at their home in Addisleigh Park, an affluent part of the Black St. Albans neighborhood in Queens, New York City where the Southerns lived.1 Southern reportedly “autographed many books,” there were skits and singing, and proceeds from the gathering went to the St. Albans branch of the YWCA.

    1. “Book Party Held.” New York Amsterdam News April 3, 1971 p. 28.

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    Letter from Eileen Southern to Perdita Duncan (May 16, 1971).

    This was not the type of coverage Southern was looking for, however. In May 1971, a few months after MOBA was released, she wrote to Perdita Duncan, music editor of The Amsterdam News, expressing frustration that Black readers were not aware of The Music of Black Americans as she had hoped, in part because no review had appeared in the publication. “I wrote the book with my own people in mind,” she told Duncan. “I wanted them to learn of our past great achievements in music.” Other than a charming photograph of Eubie Blake signing copies of MOBA at another book party, the book appears not to have received a substantial review in The Amsterdam News.2

    1. “Eubie at Book Party.” New York Amsterdam News July 8, 1972, D7.

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    Letter from Michael E. Woods to Eileen Southern (November 7, 1982).

    Many readers wrote Southern to thank her for her work, ask for advice about their own research projects, and point out factual errors. Composer Michael Woods told Southern a bit about himself and his goals as a musician, perhaps hoping that Southern might become interested in his music. Reading MOBA was an emotional experience for Woods. “I got a lump in my throat,” he reported to Southern, affirming that “the accounts [in MOBA] were vivid and parallel to my own experiences.”

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    Letter from Eileen Southern to William Garcia (January 17, 1972).

    In this 1972 letter to vocalist and educator William B. Garcia, Southern noted the “deluge of mail” she received following MOBA’s publication.

    In 1971, Southern also compiled and edited Readings in Black American Music, a 300-page volume of primary sources that was issued together with MOBA. While Southern dedicated all three editions of MOBA to her husband Joseph, she offered Readings in Black American Music “To my Mother.” The book included 37 texts, opening with an account by Richard Jobson, an English sea captain, as Southern described him, who wrote of the music-making he observed during a journey to West Africa in 1620-21. It concluded with essays by four African American composers: William Grant Still, Thomas Jefferson Anderson, Hale Smith, and Carman Moore. Only three women were represented as authors in the book: Fredrika Bremer, a Swedish novelist who wrote of her experiences hearing Black musicians during a tour of the U.S. in the mid-nineteenth century, and the singers Ethel Waters and Mahalia Jackson. A second edition of Readings appeared in 1983 as a companion to a new edition of MOBA.

    In publishing Readings in Black American Music, Southern followed a famous model within the field of musicology: Oliver Strunk’s Source Readings in Music History: From Classical Antiquity to the Romantic Era. First published in London in 1950, Strunk’s book was reissued in the U.S. in 1965 by W. W. Norton, the same firm that published MOBA six years later.  By following Strunk’s example, Southern aimed to place the study of African American music on an equal footing with that of its white European counterparts.


    Further Editions of

    The Music of Black Americans

    Two subsequent editions of The Music of Black Americans appeared in 1983 and 1997. An announcement of the second edition notes significant updates and additions; it also references Southern’s role as editor of The Black Perspective in Music, which gave her unparalleled access to the latest scholarship on Black music.

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    Announcement for the second edition of The Music of Black Americans.

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    Letter from Eileen Southern to Rathindranath Chattopadhyay (November 29, 1984).

    Southern continued to receive letters from fans across the country and around the world. Here she responds to Indian scholar Rathindrath Chattopadhyay, who took exception with her discussion of “We Shall Overcome,” finding it to be “not convincing.”

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    Letter from Nell Irvin Painter to Eileen Southern (August 29, 1984).

    In this letter, Black historian of the United States Nell Irvin Painter, then professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, congratulates Southern on the second edition of MOBA.

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    Letter from Reginald T. Buckner to Eileen Southern (August 22, 1983).

    An example of MOBA at use in a classroom setting came from the University of Minnesota for a class taught by jazz pianist and associate professor of music and Afro-American & African studies Reginald T. Buckner. Buckner wrote to Southern in 1983, shortly before the second edition of MOBA was published, sharing a workbook he had created for his students to use in conjunction with Southern’s text.

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    Reginald T. Buckner's "Afro 1-301: Black Music" Workbook.

    Each edition of MOBA was larger and more diverse in contents than its predecessor, and this pattern held firm with the third and final edition of the book, published in 1997. Southern’s preface acknowledged a changed academic climate for the study of Black music, noting an “ever-increasing interest” in the subject. “It has been my aim,” she wrote, “to bring the text up to date, based on my own research and that of others in the field during the past two decades. I have inserted new material throughout the book, rewritten passages as necessary, restructured parts of the text, divided an extensive chapter in two, and added an entirely new chapter, ‘Currents in Contemporary Arenas.’” Southern singled out “the treatment of black women musicians” as among the “notable features of this revision.”

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    The Music of Black Americans: A History, 3rd edition.

    In other words, when Southern published the first edition of MOBA in 1971, it was a solitary effort that required amassing a multifaceted and previously untold history reaching back to 1619 when the first Africans were brought in chains to Virginia. By 1997, she was, in part, synthesizing the research of a new generation of scholars and writing as part of a community that she played a major role in inspiring and establishing.

    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.