Music Reconstructed: Lara Downes’ Classical Perspective on Jim Crow

Installment 4

From concertos to operas, Black composers captured the changes and challenges facing African Americans during Jim Crow. Renowned classical pianist Lara Downes is bringing new appreciation to the works of artists like Florence Price and Scott Joplin. In our final installment of Music Reconstructed, Downes discusses how we can hear the complicated history of this era with historian Charles L. Hughes.

Music

Transcript

Bethany Jay: Classical music may not be the first thing you think of when you think about Jim Crow. But in the early 20th century, Black composers captured the changes and challenges facing African Americans. From concertos to operas, their music offers us a frequently overlooked window into life during this period.

I’m Bethany Jay and this is “Music Reconstructed,” from Teaching Hard History. It takes research to re-think, re-mix and re-imagine music. The results can reveal insights into history for educators and students. In this special four-part series, music expert and historian Charles Hughes brings us conversations with contemporary musicians who are exploring the sounds, songs and stories of the Jim Crow era through their music.

In our final installment, Charles introduces us to the renowned classical pianist Laura Downes. As she reflects on her own musical journey, Downes shows us how we can hear the history of the Jim Crow era in the works of African American composers like Florence Price and Scott Joplin.

I’m so glad you could join us. Here's Charles.

[Lara Downes “Sketches in Sepia” (Price)]

Charles Hughes: When we think about the rich traditions of African American music. One thing that sometimes gets left out is the rich contribution of Black composers and performers to the world that we generally call classical music.

But despite this Black artists have made hugely significant contributions to these traditions. And many of these accomplishments occurred in the period of Reconstruction and Jim Crow. The worlds of concert and operatic music were transformed by Black folks in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

And no one is doing more important work to both care for that tradition and make it newly relevant than our guest today, the celebrated composer and pianist, Lara Downes. Downes is an award-winning recording artist, and she's been supported by organizations, including the Mellon Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Classical Recording Foundation.

She foregrounds the building of community, including hosting a series called Amplify on NPR, where she discusses music as a vehicle for historical and contemporary change, and Rising Sun Music, a series of recordings that spotlight the work of Black composers throughout American history.

In our conversation, we talked about her album REFLECTIONS: Scott Joplin Reconsidered, which rethinks and remixes the legendary, but still underappreciated Ragtime innovator, Scott Joplin. And then we talked about the groundbreaking work of Black woman composer, Florence Price, an album that Downes recorded called Piano Discoveries, which spotlights work that Price composed in the early 20th century. And, as you'll hear about, Downes discovered through a very historically minded method.

[Lara Downes “French Suite No. 5 in G Major, BWV 816: Sarabande” (Bach)]

Lara Downes: I started playing the piano, the way that many musicians do, when I was very, very young. So by the time I was four years old, I was pretty much committed. It sounds crazy, but I was. I was practicing the piano every day by the time I was four years old. And I loved it.

So my early years at the instrument were lived in a world where I absolutely didn't belong, in some ways. Right? The music that I was playing came from the 18th and 19th centuries. It was written by white men. It was sort of my destiny that I was going to spend my life working with music that spoke to me so profoundly on one level but did not contain my story.

And then at a certain point, I just kind of had a suspicion that there was more to the story. And I started investigating. You know, ‘Were there no women who wrote American music? Were there are no people of color who wrote American music?’ And very quickly I found out there is an entire broad, deep tradition of music that very, very much reflects me. And that changed my life.

[Lara Downes “Fantasie Nègre No. 4 in B minor” (Price)]

Lara Downes: I remember so clearly going to a library and finding an anthology called A Century of Music by Black Women Composers. To me—I don't even know how to explain this well—it's really like, it was like finding a secret room, you know, that I didn't know, was there, in a house I thought I knew. And opening up the doors to that room, you know, for everyone to come in.

In that collection, there was a piece by Florence Price called “Fantasie Nègre,” which, I mean it means “Black Fantasy.”

[Lara Downes “Fantasie negre” (Price)]

Lara Downes: At first, she's kind of letting the pianist show off. There's like a lot of pyrotechnics and you're just kind of being big and romantic and like virtuoso at the keyboard. Then there's this moment when all of that segues into this very intimate spiritual called “Sinner, Please Don’t Let This Harvest Pass.” All the fanciness and the flash just goes away. And now we're in church, and I think everybody leans in and listens.

There just a sound to that piece that I had not encountered before. It's kind of a mix of this 19th century, European romantic style, but the piece itself comes from Black spirituals. So it's like two languages coming together and creating a new language, and it just totally blew my mind.

Florence Price, she became a very important figure in the Black Renaissance in Chicago, in the 1930s. And she actually made history as the first Black woman ever to have her music performed by a major American symphony orchestra. That was in 1933.

And then towards the end of her life, I think the popularity of her music just sort of died. She died in the early fifties. And it wasn't until 2009 that most of her music was discovered in an abandoned house that she had used as a summer house during her life. And they found all these boxes of manuscripts that were mildewed, and torn, and crumpled up and, you know, full of rodents. I mean really trash. It was eventually taken down to the archives at the University of Arkansas and kept there.

And I was visiting with a friend who's a musicologist. And I said, “You know, I just keep thinking about those boxes in the library in Arkansas. There's gotta be more piano music in there.”

And he went down there and started looking through. And, sure enough, there's a whole album, and much more, that came out of what was found in those boxes.

[Lara Downes “Sketches in Sepia” (Price)]

Lara Downes: One of the pieces I really love by Florence Price is called “Sketches in Sepia.” And it sort of takes a journey through different styles of music and different moods. There is kind of this, like, Ragtime section, but then it also gets really lyrical and romantic. And I think it's very nostalgic. You know, as you can imagine from the title, it's sort of looking back at like faded old photographs.

Hearing this music—especially if I'm successful in presenting it—I think it gives us access to the experiences of people who lived, you know, a hundred some years ago. Music brings stories alive, and it brings people alive. And it lets us connect. And that's, I mean, that is history.

[Lara Downes “The Entertainer” (Joplin)]

Lara Downes: Well, so many of these composers I'm working with, Florence Price, all of the others, these are names that are not known to the general American public. Scott Joplin's different. A lot of people do know his name. A few tunes of his got super popular because they were in his movie in 1973 called The Sting. Everybody learned how to play “The Entertainer” as a kid. In the 1970s, there was a revival of music by Scott Joplin who wrote his music at the turn of the 20th century.

There was a kind of hope at that moment. Slavery has just been abolished. And so to grow up as a Black American in that first generation that's born into freedom, that's what made it possible for somebody like Joplin to have a vision that seems insane, right? He is trying to not only become so successful in the field of Ragtime, which is a brand new kind of American popular music. But he's also convinced that he's going to write the first great African American opera, which is an art form that is completely outside of any experience that Black people have been involved with, and Americans in general. It's a European high art form. And he's going to write this great opera, and change history and change the course of music. And I think that's only possible because hope is so powerful, so undiluted.

[Lara Downes “Treemonisha: Prelude” (Joplin)]

Lara Downes: So Treemonisha is an opera that tells a story about the power of education. The plot is about this young girl who leads her community to freedom. And these con men who are trying to fool people through sort of superstition and lack of knowledge. So it's about the power of knowledge and the power that that gives us to control our destiny.

The album begins with this little prelude from Treemonisha, And musically, you hear all of his roots. He grew up learning classical music as a little boy in Texas. And, you know, he kept studying classical music, even though he was making his living as a Ragtime artist.

I grew up, as I said, feeling, you know, very isolated as a little brown girl in this very white male European world of classical music. I hope that the work I'm doing changes that reality for the next generation of little Black and brown kids who fall in love with this music.

And for me, it was really important to have that presence on the album, that next generation presence. So I collaborated with the Brooklyn Youth Chorus on “A Real Slow Drag,” which is the final number from Joplin's opera Treemonisha.

[Lara Downes & Brooklyn Youth Chorus “Treemonisha: A Real Slow Drag” (Joplin)]

Lara Downes: I wanted to take it away from, like, a serious operatic place, maybe uproot it from its time. But just to present him as this super innovative, visionary American artist, who really changed our music. And then to put that sound at the end of the album, that is, you know, literally the sound of the future. It's a really beautiful way to broaden the definitions of what we're talking about when we're talking about classical music and make it so much more fun, and welcoming and like a healthy place to be.

Charles Hughes: One of the things that strikes me so much about Lara Downes, beyond her incredible expertise, is the way in which she also is demonstrating how music not only teaches us about history but offers us a kind of way to do history. In the music of Scott Joplin or in the music of Florence Price, Lara Downes hears this historical dialogue, right, the way in which the United States was changing and the way in which African Americans were seizing the opportunities of freedom, while also dealing with the continuing limitations of a Jim Crow world.

This is the final episode of Music Reconstructed. And we thought in this last time, we would leave you with a little something extra, because another of Lara Downes’s remarkable albums is called Some of These Days, from 2020, in which downs considers and engages the tradition of spirituals and freedom songs.

And on one track in particular, she works with an artist named Toshi Reagon, an incredibly powerful and innovative singer songwriter and performer. But Toshi Reagon also has an even more direct connection to this tradition.

Toshi Reagan's mother is Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon, who began her career as an activist and artist with the SNCC Freedom Singers during the Civil Rights Movement and later went on to form the great Sweet Honey in the Rock. So here's Lara Downes now talking about her interpretation with Toshi Reagon of the spiritual “Steal Away.”

[Music: Toshi Reagon “Steal Away” (demo)]

Lara Downes: Toshi Reagan and I had wanted to do a collaboration as part of this album, Some of These Days. And then one day she just sent me this track that she had laid down a version of the spiritual “Steal Away.”

Then I took my mom to see the movie Harriet about Harriet Tubman. And there's this scene where she finally gets to Philadelphia. And, all of a sudden, there are Black people walking around the streets of the city and they're dressed in fine clothing. They are educated, and they're a part of a society that she could not have dreamed of a day before that.

So the movie's over. My mom always likes to sit through all the credits, and I'm like yanking her out of her seat saying. “We have to go home, because I have this idea.”

[Music: Lara Downes “Piano Sonata No. 2, ‘Concord, Mass 1840-1860’” (Charles Ives)]

Lara Downes: So we get home, and I go to my piano. And I started playing the “Concord Sonata” by Charles Ives, which is a really interesting piece of music because he wrote it at exactly the same time. But he's way up in Concord, Massachusetts, and he's an abolitionist. He's living in this community of abolitionists, and they're thinking about this kind of utopian version of America that focuses on freedom of mind, and freedom of speech and all these things.

[Music: Lara Downes & Toshi Reagon “Steal Away (After Ives's Piano Sonata No. 2 ‘Concord’)”]

Lara Downes: So I start playing these weird chords of Ives’ music with Toshi’s track. And it was like this magical amalgam of two different places—like two versions of America—coming together.

I think it's one of the best things I've ever done.

Bethany Jay: Thanks to Ms. Downes for sharing her insights and her art with us. And thanks too to our resident music correspondent, historian Charles L. Hughes. Dr. Hughes is the Director of the Lynne & Henry Turley Memphis Center at Rhodes College and the author of Why Bushwick Bill Matters and Country Soul: Making Music and Making Race in the American South.

You can find a complete list of the songs you heard in the show notes—along with a full transcript and links to helpful classroom resources. Visit us at LearningForJustice.org/podcasts.

Teaching Hard History is a podcast from Learning for Justice—the education arm of the Southern Poverty Law Center—helping teachers and schools prepare students to be active participants in a diverse democracy.

“Music Reconstructed” is produced by Barrett Golding. Our senior producer is Shea Shackelford. Russell Gragg is our associate producer. Cory Collins provides content guidance. Kate Shuster is the series creator. And our managing producer is Miranda LaFond. I’m Dr. Bethay Jay, Professor of History at Salem State University and your host for Teaching Hard History.

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