A TREASURE OF BLACK MUSIC
Updated: Jul 4, 2020
SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTION’S NEWEST MUSEUM SHOWS RELICS OF SOUL, GOSPEL, COUNTRY AND MORE
The National Museum of African-American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., has the most interesting collection of artifacts and stories on soul, gospel and related styles of music, outside of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland and Nashville’s incredible Country Music Hall of Fame.
I should first say that a visit to the museum in Washington was a life changing experience for me--even though I’m someone like me who has studied Black history, music styles and the African-American experience for many years.
Within its walls are countless artifacts and stories that mark the tragic beginnings and immense creativity and genius of Black Americans--timbers from a slave ship; desks from a Rosenwald school and the walls of a slave cabin from my native South Carolina; the desk and chair of Robert Smalls, the slave who stole a Confederate vessel from Charleston Harbor, steered the ship to Union forces, and later was elected to Congress during Reconstruction; the dolls used by sociologist Kenneth Clark during the Brown v. Board of Education trial; and so much more.
The experience of viewing slain teenager Emmett Till's burial casket (exhumed to test for DNA evidence, I believe) was like feeling a flash of the heartbreak and sorrow felt by those who knew the boy--and by those whose lives and families have been touched by hate-motivated violence in America.
The music section in itself, though, is wondrously interesting. Here’s a look at a few artifacts and storylines from the museum that even many museum visitors may wish to know more about:
A suit and a Grammy Award belonging to one of The Dixie Hummingbirds, perhaps to longtime group leader and lead singer Ira Tucker.
You might not know Tucker’s name, but if you love American popular music, you feel his influence every day. James Brown, Stevie Wonder, and many others have pointed to Tucker as a direct influence.
“I jumped off my first stage in Suffolk, Virginia. I was singing “I Don’t Know Why” by Thomas A. Dorsey, and the folks had fits,” Tucker told author Anthony Heilbut for his classic book on key figures in gospel music,The Gospel Sound: Good News and Bad Times, first published in 1971. “Shoot, what James Brown does, I’ve been doing,” Tucker added.
The Dixie Hummingbirds are best known, however, for crossing paths with a white musician--which of course is a crying shame. Still, Paul Simon’s “Loves Me Like a Rock” paid respect to the Hummingbirds’ music and gave the group a much broader, global exposure. The Hummingbirds’ own version of Simon’s song, released in 1973, surpasses even the very creative original and is one of the top 20 soul performances of all time, in my view. (See video below.)
Years ago, I was honored to write this passage on the Hummingbirds for The South Carolina Encylcopedia, and even exchanged detailed e-mails with Ira Tucker Jr. at that time. I’ll write more about this seminal group in a separate article. (Story continues after the video.)
Josh White’s performing guitar: Best known for his New York folk-scene performances and records in the 1950s and 1960s, and for his friendship with luminaries such as Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, and Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, White’s 1930s recordings are more blues, influenced by songsters he hung out with as a child--including Blind Blake and Blind Joe Taggart. (See video below.)
I had the pleasure of meeting Josh White Jr., also a well-known folk singer, at the unveiling of a mural in 2016 in Greenville, S.C., my hometown, on a wall beside Horizon Records there (one of the best record stores in the country for roots music). Josh White Jr. performed several songs and answered questions from an interviewer and the audience. The event also marked the release of the reissued 1956 album Josh at Midnight, perhaps his most complete overall album.
When I asked Josh White Jr. to autograph my copy of the new, reissued album, I told him I’d been at the 2015 Lead Belly tribute concert at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., where he’d performed along with Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, Lucinda Williams, Valerie June, Dom Flemons, Shannon McNally and others. (I believe Josh White Jr. performed his father’s poignant and provocative “Bourgeois Blues.”)
White Jr. responded that he remembered Lead Belly (whose real name was Huddie Ledbetter) as one of his Pop’s friends who’d come over to play music. He had no idea Leadbelly was the legend behind songs as “Midnight Special” and “Goodnight Irene."
Look for a more detailed account of the special day in Greenville in a separate post coming soon. (Story continues after video.)
Marian Anderson’s dress from her 1939 performance of "My Country, 'Tis of Thee (America)" and several opera and Black-spiritual numbers before 75,000 at the Lincoln Memorial--after she was refused a performance at the nearby DAR-Constitution Hall in Washington, which at the time did not allow Black performers. reportedly after an artist had protested the segregated audience. (See video below. Story continues after the video.)
A copy of Color Me Country, the lone country album by singer Linda Martell, a native of Leesville, S.C. (a small town I once covered as a newspaper reporter) who in 1969 became the first African-American woman to perform on the Grand Ole Opry. Her lone real hit, was “Color Him Father,” although her version of “Before the Next Teardrop Falls” also made the charts, preceding Freddy Fender’s classic rendition from 1975.
I dig another single of Martell's, “Bad Case of the Blues,” in which she sings both soulfully--and yodels with incredible range that would make Jimmie Rogers proud. (Check out the video below of Martell performing "...Blues" on the TV show, Hee Haw.) At last check, Martell was a school bus driver in her hometown. I’ll see if I can contact her for a future piece at SoulCountry. She must have some stories to tell. (Story continues after the video.)
Thom Bell’s studio piano from Philadelphia Sound Studios: I couldn’t believe the museum actually had Thom Bell’s piano. Bell was a key songwriter, arranger and producer in the "Philly Sound” era for The Spinners, The O’Jays, The Delfonics, The Stylistics, and others. Last I read, there was interest in creating a Philly Sound museum to celebrate this artistry. Such an endeavor would be more than worthwhile and I’m sure would add even more soul and pride to an already great city.
Other cool stuff: The museum also has many other stunning musical artifacts on display, such as Jimi Hendrix’s performance amplifier, shoes and an outfit (beaded with S-E-X) worn on stage by South Carolina native James Brown, a guitar that belonged to Lead Belly, Dizzy Gillespie’s trumpet (a native of Chester, S.C.), Chuck Berry’s (the father of rock ’n roll) performance guitar, a cast of composer and Broadway pioneer Eubie Blake’s hands--and even Parliament-Funkadelic’s Mothership, the funky-ass UFO stage prop that became famous in the 1970s concerts, although this artifact was a replica used for later tours by the group.
Out of this world, baby.
Photo gallery: Ira Tucker's suit from the Dixie Hummingbirds, a Grammy Award that belonged to Tucker, for the Dixie Hummingbirds' "Loves Me Like a Rock," Marian Anderson's clothing from her 1939 performance (from the Smithsonian Institution, via NPR), a photo of Anderson wearing the ensemble (from the University of Pennsylvania, via NPR), and a songbook featuring Josh White.