This guest post is by Sarah Elizabeth Tomlinson, a Ph.D. candidate in Musicology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
At their school’s annual Christmas performance, forty kindergarten and first-grade students in Durham, North Carolina bounced and sang along with the Library of Congress. Specifically, they performed for an audience of family and friends with a rare archival recording of the spiritual, “Samson,” housed in the American Folklife Center’s Alan Lomax CBS Radio Series Collection. As their young voices rang out, “If I had my way/If I had my way/If I had my way,” their bodies clapped, stomped, and swayed to the grounded beat. The students accompanied their voices with body percussion because that is what the Golden Gate Quartet, the gospel jubilee quartet performing on the original recording, had done. Siblings in the audience moved in rhythm while grandparents shifted to get the perfect photo angle. The end of the first chorus, “I’d tear the building down,” closed with a Pat-Pat-Stomp! as the young musicians embodied Samson’s vindication.
This performance at the Global Scholars Academy, a K-8 public charter school where I teach afterschool music classes, was inspired by young people’s creativity and a week that I spent at the Library of Congress in September 2017. The American Folklife Center and the John W. Kluge Center hosted a work-a-thon for young scholars like me to explore Alan’s Lomax long overlooked but influential radio broadcasts. The other participants and I found ourselves brainstorming strategies to promote public access to the library. How might we get more people to use the Lomax radio materials? How could the Library of Congress expand its users beyond academic researchers? How might the Library of Congress become more like a public library? Then I started to wonder if my music students at the Global Scholars Academy might have some answers.
Who better to use the Library of Congress’s materials than kindergarteners and first-graders? Schoolchildren were indeed the original consumers of—and even contributors to—Alan Lomax’s first regularly broadcast radio series, Folk Music of America. The Folk Music of America series premiered in October 1939 on the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS)’s American School of the Air. CBS’s American School of the Air forged new paths in educational technology airing radio broadcasts during the school day to students in classrooms across the United States. Lomax and his collaborators curated a wide array of folk music, from sea shanties to children’s songs of play. They prioritized musical diversity as they featured works by women composers including Ruth Crawford Seeger, African-American performers including Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter, and broadcast themes such as “Poor Farmer Songs.” Each broadcast concluded with a request for young listeners and their teachers to send in folk songs from their hometowns. At the September 2017 work-a-thon, we discussed bringing radio materials back to their “communities of origin.” As an educational radio broadcast, the community of origin for Folk Music of America, arguably at least, was the schoolroom.
Folk Music of America simulated community across classrooms through on-air singalongs. The Music Educators’ National Conference helped develop the Folk Music of America educational materials, including a workbook with musical notation and instructions so teachers could prepare their students for the singalongs. According to the 1939-1940 Instructor Manual, students were to learn the chorus to “Samson” prior to its broadcast in February 1940. We replicated this experience at the Global Scholars Academy in 2017, and my students took to “Samson” with enthusiasm. It worked well to learn the song with voices and piano only before we sang along with the broadcast. As a musical activity, it was effective and memorable. Archival fan mail held at the Folklife Center reveals that children and their teachers in 1940 also sang along with the broadcasts. John Richard Dunne, a student in Mrs. Siegel’s class, admits in a February 13, 1940 letter that he and his classmates sang with the broadcasts.
While Lomax and his collaborators made efforts to work against racist interpretations of Black musicians and musical styles, students in Mrs. Siegel’s class show their limitations in 1940. Mrs. Siegel’s students demonstrate the social biases of mid-twentieth century U.S. society. Dunne refers to the music of “darkies,” echoing the racist perceptions present in several of his classmates’ letters. For my 2017 students at the Global Scholars Academy, we discussed how racist histories of music impacted many musicians’ careers. We critically engaged with these histories and we reiterated—through singing, stories, art, and conversation—the importance and value of Black musical forms in the past and present.
To add another aspect of communities of origin, my classes and I focused on the “Samson” spiritual performed by the Golden Gate Quartet because it has a connection to North Carolina. When Lomax introduced listeners to the quartet on February 13, 1940, he made sure to note that they were from Charlotte. Hear Lomax’s introduction and the song in the player below:
To “meet” the Golden Gate Quartet in Charlotte when we listened to the broadcast in 2017, the students and I took an imaginary drive from our school in Durham to Charlotte by making car noises and singing “The Wheels on the Bus.” When we pretended to “arrive,” one first-grader exclaimed, “My grandma lives in Charlotte!” In addition to relating to the performers’ hometown and singing along with them, we listened for the percussive sounds they made with their bodies. In the 1940 recording, we can hear claps and pats as the quartet performers used their bodies to add rhythmic accents. This inspired us to use our own bodies as instruments, which is called body percussion. We experimented with different combinations of stomps and claps, until we solidified our group body percussion composition for the performance.
We also made connections to the story and musical meanings of “Samson.” Samson’s lover Delilah manipulates him into revealing that his hair is the source of his godlike strength, only to have it cut off so she can turn him over to his oppressors. My students were drawn to the vivid illustrations as we read a children’s book version of Samson out loud. Samson’s story concludes when he tears down a temple filled with his oppressors, explaining the final lyrics “I’d tear the building down.” From there we discussed how the song “Samson” has helped many people get through hard times and various forms of oppression. The radio broadcast presented “Samson” as a spiritual, traditionally sung by African Americans fighting for freedom against their white oppressors during slavery, and how spirituals have continued into the present day as musical forms of resistance. We recalled how we had listened to other Black performers such as the opera soprano Marian Anderson sing spirituals, too. We discussed how our body percussion composition connected to Black musical practices of embodied rhythms. We also drew pictures of what we would build together after we had torn the building down like Samson. Some students drew gardens, rainbows and toy stores. Others depicted a music machine, a house where everyone cares, and a musical factory for making beats.
Even after our performance, which you can watch at this link, I still hear my students singing “Samson” when I pass them in the halls. Their movements, voices and drawings have made a 1940 radio broadcast from the marble walls of the Library of Congress into something living and something of their own. While singing about tearing the building down, the creativity and contributions of these forty young people prove there is much to gain, grow, and build from opening the doors of our iconic buildings more widely.
Thank you to the Global Scholars Academy and the Library of Congress’s John W. Kluge Center and American Folklife Center. This collaboration was also supported by the Society for American Music and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Many people contributed to the ideas and activities discussed. From the Library of Congress: Todd Harvey, Mary Lou Reker, John Fenn, Lawrence Davies, Kate Neale, Delaina Sepko, and Alan Noonan. From the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill: Chérie Rivers Ndaliko and Joanna Helms. From the Global Scholars Academy: Miya Brown, Jason Jowers, Katonia Kelly, and especially the kindergarten and first-grade students and their extended-day teachers.