David Gilbert's The Product of our Souls
Reviewed by Peter C. Muir
The first two decades of the twentieth century produced a revolution in American music. Ragtime -– which first emerged into the mainstream in the closing years of the 1800s –- was the first African American style to gain international popularity, and everything that has happened since in vernacular music –- from jazz, and blues, to rap and rock -- has followed in its trail-blazing wake.
Despite this, the scholarship about ragtime is limited, with much less attention being devoted to it than to the genres that followed on in its wake. There are several reasons for this, but the most overriding is a sense that ragtime is merely the warm-up act for jazz, which first emerged on the national scene in 1917 and almost immediately led to the eclipse of the earlier genre. Yet the fact that ragtime has a musical identity that is clearly distinct from jazz or any other style; that it produced music of enduring quality (most famously, of course, that of Scott Joplin); that it was the product of an underclass; that it arose in and embodied the cultural upheaval of early Modernism: all this marks its importance as a rich cultural phenomenon and makes its sparse representation in scholarship all the more troubling.
David Gilbert’s excellent study of black ragtime in New York, The Product of Our Souls, is therefore particularly welcome in this underserved marketplace and its synthesis of social, cultural, racial and urban history amounts to an entirely fresh approach to ragtime studies. Gilbert shows how, beginning in the late 1890s, pioneering African American entertainers such as Ernest Hogan, the duo of Bert Williams and George Walker, violinist and Dvořák student Will Marion Cook, the Johnson brothers (James Weldon and J. Rosamund), bandleader James Reese Europe and many others, penetrated the entertainment markets of New York, producing hit songs (such Hogan’s notoriously titled “All Coons Look Alike to Me” from 1896, the first piece of sheet music to use the word ragtime), creating musicals (beginning with Cook’s Clorindy; or, The Origin of the Cakewalk in 1898, the first all-black Broadway show), headlining in vaudeville, and providing bands and orchestras for upscale restaurants and society events.
This commercial penetration effectively occurred in two waves. The first, in theater -– the golden age of black musical theater, as it is often known -- was over by 1911, with the death of three of its leading luminaries, George Walker, Ernest Hogan, and Bob Cole. The second, spearheaded by James Europe, centered round live music performance for social dance, most notably his becoming music director for top society dance-team of Vernon and Irene Castle in 1912, an association which made him nationally famous.
A central thread of the book shows how, as black ragtime evolved musically and commercially, it navigated the challenging political and cultural pathways of the Jim Crow era. The leading figures of Gilbert’s narrative –- Williams, Walker, Europe, and the rest -- were all members of a social community based around the Hotel Marshall in Manhattan’s Tenderloin district. Well-educated, articulate and politically savvy, this group was notable not just for its creative innovation but also for its promotion of the agenda of racial uplift. In terms of the latter, the Marshall group challenged the established, Eurocentric notions of uplift of Du Bois and the Talented Tenth, instead adopting an approach that emphasized racial difference: “Rather than working to change the behaviors and cultures of the black masses, Marshall musicians aimed to change the public representations of the culture they already had… by legitimizing black culture rather than denying it” (76).
This approach Gilbert terms “ragging uplift.” Ragging uplift stressed the essential blackness of the ragtime style, particularly its strongly rhythmic feel, which fed into older, familiar tropes about the supposed natural rhythmic gifts of the black race: “Rhythm is something that is born in the negro,” as Europe expressed it to the New York Tribune in 1914 (quoted, 175). This leads in turn to the issue of authenticity. If ragtime was essentially black music it followed that performance by blacks was more authentic than that by whites. This notion dates back at least to Williams and Walker billing themselves from early in their career as the “Two Real Coons,” to distinguish themselves from competing white minstrel acts.
Gilbert shows that the ragging uplift approach was commercially and culturally a remarkable success. With ragtime becoming the popular music of the day, and an understanding developing that the best performances were by blacks, a transformation took place in the workplace, and, by the end of the era, blacks were being employed in huge numbers, especially in ragtime-based dance orchestras. The most obvious symbol of this was the runaway success of the Clef Club, founded by Europe in 1912, a combined music union and booking agency for African American musicians, whose 125 piece orchestra performed in a series of crossover Carnegie Hall concerts which took the elite Manhattan music scene by storm beginning in May 1912.
Yet despite its undoubted success as a commercializing strategy, ragging uplift failed in a most important respect, which was it did not result in African Americans moving closer to being treated as equal citizens. In one of the most fascinating arguments of the book, Gilbert convincingly shows how, while black entertainers thought of themselves and their work as enacting modernism, their white audiences and patrons viewed it as primitivism. That sense of difference, indeed, was the basis of black ragtime’s appeal for whites: us, modern; them, primitive. With historical hindsight, this seems inevitable: the systemic racism of the Jim Crow era was far too entrenched to be eroded even by cultural forces as dynamic as those operating in ragtime-era Manhattan. It remains a cruel irony nonetheless, that while those forces transformed the material prospects for African American entertainers and instigated a musical revolution whose impact remains with us today, they did so without meaningfully tackling the insidious policy of desegregation.
The Product of Our Souls is a most illuminating study that offers a new understanding of the rise not only of ragtime, but more generally of the black entertainment industry in New York. Largely avoiding jargon, clearly written, and cogently argued, it should appeal not only to musicians and musicologists but to anyone interested in the period, and it is highly recommended.
Peter C. Muir is an internationally recognized pianist, composer, scholar, and conductor. He is the co-founder and co-director of the Institute for Music and Health in Verbank, New York.