Three Negro Songs
Will Marion Cook (1869-1944) BMI
I. Swing Along (4:00)
II. Exhortation (2:20)
III. Rain-Song (3:42)
The use of Negro dialect by black literary artists and composers is a legacy of the "Negro" or "Ethiopian" minstrelsy (white performers in blackface) that was widely popular in the United States and abroad in the 1800s. Black showmen took up the practice in the 1860s, following Emancipation, in an effort to meet prevailing show-business expectations. Black minstrelsy created and perpetuated derogatory stereotypes, but also provided an opportunity for Afro-Americans to enter show business, justifying itself in the eyes of many participants and observers. Near the end of the nineteenth century, black poets began to employ dialect in their work, perhaps inspired by white writers who were using regional dialect for artistic expression. The consummate writer of Negro dialect was poet Paul Laurence Dunbar. Others (like those who produced the dialect verse of some of the pieces included on the present program) followed his lead. Later, in the 1920s, the practice was rejected by some black intellectuals, including poet James Weldon Johnson, who promoted for Afro-American literary expression "a form which would be freer and larger than dialect."1 In the meantime, dialect verse in its less gross and more sympathetic forms was employed quite effectively by some black poets and composers, including Will Marion Cook in his Three Negro Songs.
Cook's work reveals his strong devotion to the Afro-American cultural tradition as well as his training in the European concert tradition. "Exhortation" perhaps best reveals the characteristics of both, communicating elements of black preaching in its presentation of the exhortations of the black preacher while presenting itself as a kind of recitative-and-aria through the declamatory setting of the text in the first part of the song and its lyrical treatment of the second part.
The text of "Exhortation" was written by Alex Rogers (1876-1930), who functioned as singer, actor, and chief lyricist in some of Cook's shows. Rogers collaborated on a number of Broadway and off-Broadway shows with other playwrights and musicians, including Luckey Roberts, J. Rosamond Johnson, and J. Lubrie Hill. Rogers also wrote the lyrics for "Rain-Song." The lyrics for "Swing Along" were written by Cook himself. It is this latter song that became the most widely performed and most famous of the three pieces in the cycle. It became a favorite of men's choruses of the day.
"Swing Along" is one of the songs from Cook's show In Dahomey (1902). Contained in this piece are the exciting Afro-American rhythms that emerged publicly in the ragtime music of the late nineteenth century. Aside from its rhythmic and melodic variety, the piece features great contrasts in tempo, mode, and dynamics. "Exhortation" and "Rain-Song'' apparently were written to stand alone. The three songs were brought together in the present cycle in 1912 and published under the title Three Negro Songs. "Swing Along" was adapted by Cook from the original choral version. "Exhortation" possesses interesting harmonies, and great dramatic presence distinguishes the piece. "Rain-Song" is a comic song in the ragtime song vein, moderate in tempo with characteristic "swing," spiced with grace notes and tremolos.
Known affectionately by other musicians as "Dad" Cook in the 1920s, Will Marion Cook was a kind of "Dean" of black musicians, having served as a musical director, composer, and producer for a number of black shows on Broadway between 1898 and 1914. Among Cook's best-known shows are In Dahomey (1902), In Bandana Land (1907), and Swing Along (1929). Cook made history as director of the New York Syncopated Orchestra (which he organized in 1918). The orchestra toured the United States and England, where it played for King George V at Buckingham Palace.
A composer and violinist, Cook's training included undergraduate studies at Oberlin Conservatory, studies in composition with Antonin Dvořák at the National Conservatory of Music, and violin lessons with Josef Joachim in Berlin. He gave his first public recitals in 1896 and made his debut as a concert violinist in New York in 1889. Duke Ellington, one of Cook's many protégés and musical advisees, tells in his Music Is My Mistress of the event that caused Cook to shun the concert world for the world of show business. It is said that when Cook returned to New York following his studies in Europe and made his New York debut, a reviewer wrote that Cook was
"the world's greatest Negro violinist."
Dad Cook took his violin and went to see the reviewer at the newspaper office.
"Thank you very much for the favorable review," he said. "You wrote that I was the world's greatest Negro violinist."
"Yes, Mr. Cook," the man said,"and I meant it. You are definitely the world's greatest Negro violinist."
With that, Dad Cook took out his violin and smashed it across the reviewer's desk.
"I am not the world's greatest Negro violinist," he exclaimed. "I am the greatest violinist in the world!"
He turned and walked away from his splintered instrument, and he never picked up a violin again in his life.