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Founding director of the National Negro Opera Company, Mary Cardwell Dawson, 1934. Box 13 Folder 31, National Negro Opera Company collection, Music Division, Library of Congress.

Year-Round African-American Music History at LOC

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The Library of Congress is always eager to celebrate heritage months, and February is Black History Month! The Music Division has all the resources you need to explore and appreciate African-American contributions to the performing arts year-round, not only in February.

Sheet music cover with photograph of Scott Joplin. Joplin, Scott. The Cascades: A Rag. St. Louis, MO: John Stark and Son, 1904. (Call number ML31.J.)

Start with our digital collections, which contain digitized objects united by common subjects. Performing arts digital collections currently online related to African-Americans include: African-American Band Music and Recordings, 1883-1923; Civil War Sheet Music; Ragtime; Amazing Grace; and the William P. Gottlieb Collection. There is also Zora Neale Hurston’s musical play Meet the Mamma in the Manuscript Division’s digital collection Zora Neale Hurston Plays at the Library of Congress. The digital collections The Library of Congress Celebrates the Songs of America and Music for the Nation: American Sheet Music, ca. 1870 to 1885 provide more ways to find and freely download music by 19th– and early 20th-century African-American composers and songwriters such as Harry T. Burleigh, Noble Sissle, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, James Bland, and James Reese Europe.

Past library exhibits presented online are rich in resources related to African-Americans. Complete with object images, descriptive texts, citations, and recommended resources, it’s almost like you were here for the real thing. Check out 2008’s Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater: 50 Years Cultural Ambassador to the World, Politics and the Dancing Body from 2012, Jazz Singers from 2017, and the performing arts items in The African American Odyssey: A Quest for Full Citizenship from 1998.

You may also wish to browse past In the Muse blog posts in our Jazz category. Also, explore past webcasts in the Talking About Music Series. Scroll through and find webcasts with musicians and scholars about African-Americans including George Walker, Jelly Roll Morton, Louis and Lil Hardin Armstrong, and Harry T. Burleigh. Webcasts also include general topics related to African-Americans in music, such as Blue Note at 75 and Hip Hop in East Germany. The Music Division’s Concert Series YouTube playlist is also full of brilliant performances of African-American soloists, ensembles, and music by African-American composers.

Speaking of videos, the AFI/Zouary collection in the custody of the Motion Picture, Broadcasting, and Recorded Sound Division contains priceless 1923 footage – with sound! – of Eubie Blake performing his composition Fantasy on Swanee River.

Founding director of the National Negro Opera Company, Mary Cardwell Dawson, 1934. Box 13 Folder 31, National Negro Opera Company collection, Music Division, Library of Congress.

The Music Division is also a great place for original research with primary sources created by African-American performers, composers, arrangers, and music industry members. The list is far too long for a blog post, so here is just the tip of the iceberg. The Alvin Ailey Dance Foundation collection preserves the creative legacy of the great dancer and choreographer. The National Negro Opera Company collection is a unique resource to research America’s first African-American opera company. The Billy Strayhorn music manuscripts and estate papers are newly available to research the jazz pianist, composer and arranger. The Max Roach papers document the performance career and activism of the great jazz drummer. The Ella Fitzgerald collection contains music arrangements written just for her iconic voice. Collections of individuals about prominent African-Americans in the performing arts include the Valburn/Ellington collection, the Burt Boyar collection of Sammy Davis, Jr. biographical materials, and the Bruce Lundvall papers of the former CEO of Blue Note Records.

A biographical encyclopedia in the Performing Arts Reading Room reference collection. Floyd, Samuel A., Jr., editor. International Dictionary of Black Composers. Chicago; London: Fitzroy Dearborn, 1999. (Call number ML105.I5 1999)


What if you don’t know where to start? I highly recommend using biographical dictionaries and subject bibliographies! Once you have names of people who interest you, whether it’s because of the genre they associated with, where they came from, or the time period they lived in, the possibilities for finding music and books are endless. Music is easy – just search our card catalog, online catalog, and digital collections by composer or songwriter. For reference resources, browse the online catalog by LC call number class (click on the dropdown menu for this option) to zero in on some these specific areas: dictionaries and encyclopedias of the blues (ML102.B6), bibliographies of black and African-American music (ML128.B45), history/criticism of African-American music and spirituals (ML3556), and history/criticism of African-American gospel music (ML3187). Want more subjects or need help? Ask a Librarian!

A sample of books in the Performing Arts Reading Room reference section about African-Americans in dance. (Call numbers: GV1624.7.A34 G68 2003; GV1624.7.A34 H37 1990; GV1624.7.A34 E43 1988;
GV1624.7.A34 F56 2003)

After you get a free Reader Identification Card, you can fill out call slips in the Performing Arts Reading Room. Titles in our reference section are open for browsing, too. Or, if you live far from DC, find out if your local library already owns or will inter-library loan the titles in our catalog for you. For even more resources, check out the Columbia College of Chicago’s Center for Black Music Research (CBMR). They list rich online resources including discographies and music and composer lists by genre. CBMR’s Resources for Teachers lists biographical dictionaries, subject bibliographies, and textbooks. Search our catalog for any of these titles! Remember, you can always Ask a Librarian.

I hope that these resources help you to appreciate and research African-Americans in the performing arts year-round!

Comments (2)

  1. What great entry points for finding the music of African-American composers and artists. Resources like this promote the performance of diverse repertoire – something we truly need in America’s schools and concert halls!

  2. This is wonderful. Thank you for putting this together.

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