Paul Allen Anderson’s Deep River

Against the Current, No. 98, May/June 2002

Rachel Rubin

Deep River: Music and Memory in Harlem Renaissance Thought
by Paul Allen Anderson (Durham, NC: Duke University Press,
2001) $19.95 paperback.

“ACKNOWLEDGE YOUR OWN history,” the hip hop act The Jungle Brothers implored African American listeners in 1989.

A legacy of creativity and bravery on the part of Africans in the United States, the Jungle Brothers’ lyrics insist, can be found in stories and songs, but not in any history book: “Nobody believes this to be true/Maybe it’s because my eyes ain’t blue.”

By now it is common wisdom that Rap music is deeply invested in the “remembering” and carrying of Black history and culture. But this concept — that Black music has the unique ability to operate as the site of collective memory, and therefore has a consequential role to play in the development of African American identity — originated well before the Sugar Hill Gang brought Rap music to national prominence in 1979.

The idea of a “recuperated black inheritance” (3), as Alain Locke put it, to be discovered in (or projected into) music, organizes Paul Allen Anderson’s carefully researched and convincingly rendered Deep River: Music and Memory in the Harlem Renaissance.

Anderson’s book takes as its central concern the debates in which various African American intellectuals fashioned what Hazel Carby has called folk ideology from Black musical practices (including spirituals, the Blues, and jazz). Deep River performs an important service by re<->turning music as a central concern to the way we envision the Harlem Renaissance.

For too long, the musical part of this burst of African American creativity — and to a fair extent, the visual part as well (despite important exhibitions like the Studio Museum in Harlem’s “Art of the Harlem Renaissance” — has been cordoned off from the literary as a result of the strange career of academic disciplinarity.

The writers themselves had no truck with these distinctions, as Langston Hughes’ many blues- and jazz-based poems attest. It is at this junction of music and literature that Anderson’s book has the most to teach us.

His focus is not (usually) on the music as such, but rather on the ways in which such African American intellectuals as W.E.B. Du Bois, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Claude McKay, and especially Alain Locke, elevated musical legacy as a key component to the creation of a Black future based on respect and equality.

Passionate Debates

Arguments about the role of music were passionate during the era, and Anderson deftly clarifies the major debates and debaters.

Perhaps the most prominent figure in the book is Alain Locke, the first anthologizer of Harlem Renaissance writing. Locke held that the greatest achievement of African American music — still to be realized — would take the form of art songs based upon folk music. (4)

W.E.B. Du Bois (whose concern, Anderson supposes, was political rather than the aesthetic) also concerned himself with a Black cultural recovery, which was to come about through the modernization of folk music. Langston Hughes, for his part, gleefully skipped over any aspirations to make the folk “high” or arty, while at the same time clearly and deliberately resisting a curatorial (and thus implicitly static and condescending) approach to folk music.

Zora Neale Hurston, although she would quarrel bitterly with Hughes (and with others included in the book), also sought a preservation of Black folkloric practices and material without requiring that it be transformed into high art in order to justify its value; the latter, she felt, represented a “flight from blackness” (174) on the part of some of her contemporaries.

Anderson introduces a handful of historic performances as having provided concrete occasion for these music debates. His starting place is the American and European concert tours by the Fisk Jubilee Singers in the 1870s, which presented spirituals in a “light classical” style, as well as performing a repertoire of Euro-American compositions.

These were concerts which, despite the spirituals’ rearrangement, Du Bois describes in Souls of Black Folk as genuine folk productions, and which Alain Locke credited with saving the spirituals for another generation. (Considering that during this time, the traveling minstrel show, with its insulting caricature of African Americans, shot up in popularity, Du Bois’ appreciation for the dignified Fisk tours is understandable.)

Anderson also touches down on the concert performances of Roland Hayes, a performer in the European classical tradition, and Paul Robeson, who performed a historic series of all-spirituals concerts in 1925.

For many, Hayes’ renditions of “art songs of racial uplift through elite cultural vindication” (65) were counterpoised to Robeson’s more “authentic” versions. But Hayes himself, Anderson demonstrates, never saw himself as facing a choice between hewing to the European model, or renouncing it in an act of loyalty to African American body of song.

Of this false choice Hayes wrote, in his 1942 autobiography, “In the midst of my studies in Boston, I had not, thank God, lost my respect for my racial origins. I had simply added a new culture to an old one…I felt I had found a motto for my career: to understand the beauty of a black voice.” (63)

Nonetheless, for some, Robeson’s voice was “the superior vessel for folk inheritance” (89). Robeson’s versions were more rhythmic than Hayes’, and (for better or for worse, depending upon who was judging) less refined — less “lugubrious,” in the words of Carl Van Vechten, a white patron of many Harlem Renaissance artists.

In fact, Robeson and Hayes shared a common goal: Both wished to present African-American spirituals in a manner that did them credit while distinguishing them from European concert songs. Nonetheless, the two performers came to operate as personifications of two possible fates for the Black folk idiom.

Problems of Terms and Gender

Given the nuanced picture Anderson draws of African-American intellectual history during the period, it is surprising that he falls (by default, it seems) into the rather leveling trap of using the term “Harlem Renaissance” in a simple and unquestioning manner.

Indeed, by now a number of scholars have pointed out the ways in which using this term makes African-American cultural history too New York-centered, just as Alain Locke’s term “New Negro Renaissance” has been, for some, too male in implication (partly because of who is included in Locke’s landmark anthology The New Negro).

Sterling Brown, for instance, who is included in Anderson’s purview, was quite critical of what he perceived as excessive cosmopolitanism in the Harlem Renaissance (Smethurst 60-63); Jean Toomer, also under consideration here, never considered Harlem to be a primary home, or the subject or setting of his writing.

Such distinctions, unfortunately, are lost in Anderson’s book — which matters, since regional difference were formative for musical styles, for literary strategies, and for political analysis, the three axes on which Anderson’s important analysis is located.

Anderson would also have benefitted from using the work of a number of innovative scholars who have elucidated the gender implications of a situation in which an ideal male “interprets” a body of “folk” culture that tends to be coded as female, especially during what Anderson eloquently calls a period of “breakneck modernization.”

Anderson correctly invokes Du Bois’ writing on the “sorrow songs” in Souls of Black Folk as a bedrock of African-American music studies, but without reference to the complications inserted by Hazel Carby’s brilliant observation about how, over the course of Du Bois’ narrative, the picture of a great-great-grandmother singing songs of African lineage slips, by the end of the chapter on sorrow songs, into “songs of the fathers.” (Carby 18-21)

Anderson could likewise have made good use of Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s groundbreaking work on uses male modernist writers have made, or sought to make, of the raw materials provided by the female “folk.”

Of even more direct bearing is James Smethurst’s important book about African-American poetry and the organized left, “New Red Negro.” Smethurst’s book, which closely examines uses of the “folk” by Harlem Renaissance poets, highlights a key example that resonates deeply with Anderson’s book. This is Sterling Brown’s poem “Ma Rainey,” which purportedly pays tribute to the female singer, but does so without privileging her actual voice.

Anderson, unfortunately, writes for the most part as though gender identity did not exist in overlapping relation to racial identity. This despite the fact that in the string of a dozen or so intellectuals he considers, Zora Neale Hurston is the only woman — indeed one who felt herself quite uncomfortably situated among the men of the Harlem Renaissance.

In light of the information in a group of books that appeared around the time that Anderson’s manuscript went to press, one may also sense some squeamishness about the rich political context of these “folk” experiments.

The book does successfully stake out the different stances and investments that its major players had regarding the political potential within the stuff of folk music. Anderson tends to limit himself, however, to the study of brilliant individuals (analyzed through tools of interiority such as Freud’s binary of melancholia and mourning) rather than locating his subjects in terms of real-world organizational politics.

CPUSA’s Role

For instance, Anderson refers to the Communist Party magazine New Masses as “radical” or “progressive,” sliding over its status as the CPUSA’s cultural journal. In fact, the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA) is absent entirely from the index, as are other left organizations; these are mentioned mostly in passing, despite the relationship that most of Anderson’s main subjects (Du Bois, McKay, Hughes, Brown, Robeson, Locke) had to the CPUSA and other left groups.

A growing number of scholars of the late 1990s (Denning, Smethurst, Mullen, Maxwell) have established the important role of the CPUSA in figuring out how the “folk” and “folk art” would relate to radical class-based politics. It may then seem odd that Anderson’s roughly contemporary study would cling to a measure of “cultural amnesia” regarding the role African Americans had in shaping these organizations.

Anderson presents a scenario where the writers “found congenial” or managed to reconcile themselves to left political organizations, without acknowledging or allowing for the fact that these writers were, in fact, helping to create and direct these organizations. It is not surprising that, as Jim Smethurst points out, the slogan of the Communist-organized League of Struggle for Negro Rights, of which Hughes was the President, was Promote Negro Culture in Its Original Form with Proletarian Content. (Smethurst, 28)

Perhaps Anderson’s overall suspicion of political activism is revealed quite early on, when he seems bemused to find “idealistic” and “utopian” implications of Du Bois’ political work. (4-5)

But most of these criticisms are really more in the order of directions Anderson could also have taken his book, and academic publishers are loathe to print 600-pagers these days. Anderson’s book marvelously expands our understanding of some of the most important African American literary figures; anyone interested in American literary history will find it valuable.

Works cited

Carby, Hazel. “Ideologies of Black Folk: The Historical Novel of Slavery.” Slavery and the Literary Imagination, ed. Deborah McDowell and Arnold Rampersad. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989. 125-43.

Denning, Michael. Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century. New York: Verso, 1998.

Gilbert, Sandra and Susan Gubar. No Man’s Land: The Place of the Woman Writer in the Twentieth Century: The War of the Words. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989.

Maxwell, William J. New Negro, Old Left: African-American Writing and Communism Between the Wars.<D> New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.

Mullen, Bill. Popular Fronts: Chicago and African-American Cultural Politics, 1935-46. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999.

Smethurst, James. The New Red Negro: The Literary Left and African-American Poetry, 1930-1946. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

[Editors’ Note: A review essay discussing the Maxwell, Mullen and Smethurst titles appears in ATC 86 (May-June 2000): “African Americans, Culture and Communism (Part 2),” by Alan Wald.]

from ATC 98 (May/June 2002)