Exploring the lengthy historical past of Black music and the White Home


In line with music historians and people who’ve documented White Home historical past, the primary recognized look of a Black individual to carry out there was a younger, blind, enslaved youngster who was referred to as “Blind Tom,” and whose title has been recorded as Thomas Greene, Thomas Wiggins, and Thomas Bethune. Born in 1849, Thomas carried out on the White Home in 1859.

Mark Twain historian Barbara Schmidt has an in depth historical past of Thomas’ life posted on her long-running twainquotes web site; Twain took an curiosity in Blind Tom through the years.

Tom was born on Could 25, 1849 with a situation that in the present day’s medical doctors would possibly diagnose with the politically appropriate time period “autistic savant”–one of solely about 100 instances recorded in medical historical past. Tom’s father Domingo Wiggins, a discipline slave, and his mom Charity Greene had been bought at public sale by James Bethune of Columbus, Georgia when Tom was an toddler. Domingo and Charity’s former grasp thought the blind sickly “pickaninny” had no labor potential and he was thrown into the sale as a no price additional. Though Tom’s mother and father had been married, the prevailing customized of the time dictated that feminine slaves and their kids retain the names of their house owners. Following slavery custom, Tom acquired the title Thomas Greene Bethune. 

In 1869 Tom’s path crossed that of Mark Twain who was touring throughout the nation on his  personal lecture tour. Twain, who was additionally writing for the San Francisco Alta California newspaper, reported that he attended Tom’s live performance three nights in succession. From Mark Twain’s first hand account of Tom’s efficiency:

“He lorded it over the feelings of his viewers like an autocrat. He swept them like  a storm, along with his battle-pieces; he lulled them to relaxation once more with melodies as tender as these we hear in desires; he gladdened them with others that rippled by way of the charmed air as fortunately and cheerily because the riot the linnets make in California woods; and from time to time he threw in queer imitations of the tuning of discordant harps and fiddles, and the groaning and wheezing of bag-pipes, that despatched the rapt silence into tempests of laughter. And each time the viewers applauded when a bit was completed, this completely satisfied harmless joined in and clapped his palms, too, and with vigorous emphasis.”

Twain concluded his impressions of Blind Tom by writing:

“Some  archangel, solid out of higher Heaven like one other Devil, inhabits this coarse  casket; and he comforts himself and makes his jail lovely with ideas and desires and recollections of one other time… It’s not Blind Tom that does these  great issues and performs this glorious music–it is the opposite social gathering.”

For extra on Twain’s “archangel” idea, the White Home Historic Affiliation gives these particulars about Thomas.

Eleven-year-old piano prodigy and composer Thomas Greene Wiggins Bethune (1849-1908) is believed to have been the primary African American artist to carry out on the White Home when he performed for President James Buchanan in 1860. By that point “Blind Tom”—because the unsighted enslaved youngster was billed professionally by his white master-manager Colonel James Bethune—had toured the US and was a nationwide musical sensation. These on the command efficiency within the Govt Mansion had been additionally amazed that such transferring and masterful music flowed from somebody who was younger and disabled (Tom suffered obvious psychological deficiencies in addition to blindness)—and in addition a “Negro.” In an period when even many abolitionist whites presumed all blacks to be an inherently inferior race, one newspaper critic in attendance reported that Blind Tom’s musical expertise surpassed Mozart’s. 

Maybe the best injustice of Blind Tom’s profession was that, given the racism of the occasions, few if any of his myriad white followers—not even Mark Twain who as soon as caught Tom’s act three nights in a row—thought-about the African American musician as really possessing any musical expertise, a lot much less genius, of his personal. As a substitute, white audiences usually defined that, since a black individual was inherently incapable of such artistry, the spectacular music pouring from Blind Tom’s fingertips didn’t originate inside Tom, however as a substitute got here from some supernatural supply outdoors Tom whose black physique was merely the music’s borrowed “vessel.”


You possibly can hear Thomas’ story and extra of his music on this video with live performance pianist John Davis. Blind Tom had “a repertoire of seven,000 works” which, as Davis remarks, was “merely astonishing.” 

Although sheet music of Blind Tom’s compositions survive, there are not any recordings of his performances.

Black girls had been additionally on early White Home visitor lists. Sadly, there are additionally no recordings of their performances.

Practically 20 years after Blind Tom first carried out there, the White Home hosted soprano Marie “Selika” Williams.


Performing a quarter-century after slavery was abolished, Selika had decisions Blind Tom didn’t.


There was additionally Sissieretta Jones.

Jones had fairly the profession, together with White Home performances for a number of presidents.


The White Home Historic Affiliation affords this extraordinarily temporary nod to each Williams’ and Jones’ White Home performances.

In 1878, diva Marie (“Selika”) Williams seems to have been the earliest black artist to current a musical program on the White Home. The Fisk Jubilee Singers launched the “non secular” as an American artwork kind and got here to the White Home as a part of a tour in 1882 that raised funds to learn Fisk College. They turned the primary black choir to carry out on the White Home and their efficiency of “Secure within the Arms of Jesus,” moved President Chester Arthur to tears.

One other nice performer was Sissieretta Jones (Black Patti), the daughter of a former slave, who sang opera arias and ballads for the Harrisons in 1892. A sensational vocalist, Jones acquired rave opinions and fame in a profession that included performances on the White Home for the Harrisons, McKinleys and Theodore Roosevelts. Black entertainers within the nineteenth century established a grand custom of efficiency that advanced to embrace each number of music–from opera to gospel and from jazz to symphonic.

PBS’ American Masters produced this quick function on on Jones for his or her Unladylike 2020 collection.

This collection coated the Fisk Jubilee Singers in February 2021. In case you missed it, you should definitely give it a learn.

I’ve seen tons of of posts and articles proclaiming famed contralto Marian Anderson the primary Black lady to carry out on the White Home, and they’re traditionally incorrect. Anderson did carry out there in 1936, the place she captured the curiosity of Eleanor Roosevelt, after which once more in 1939. She sang Schubert’s “Ave Maria” at that gala; whereas there isn’t any accessible recording of that individual occasion, right here is one among her different performances.

Allow us to now quick ahead 40 years to the election of President Jimmy Carter in 1976, and his declaration of the month of June as Black Music Month. 


Nabil Ayers, writing for Pitchfork, explores the historical past of the celebration’s founding, and “what Black Music Month means now.”

Black Music Month began after the hitmaking Philadelphia soul producer Kenny Gamble visited Nashville within the Nineteen Seventies and was impressed by the Nation Music Affiliation (CMA), a robust group that underlined the style’s financial energy by spearheading Nation Music Month each October. Gamble and different Black music neighborhood leaders shared an identical sense of unity and knew they had been making a major financial impression. However no group just like the CMA existed to display or mobilize that message. So in 1978, Gamble began the Black Music Affiliation, rapidly constructing a community of high-level supporters together with Stevie Surprise, Motown Information founder Berry Gordy, and Rev. Jesse Jackson.

In lower than a yr, Gamble—together with media strategist Dyana Williams, and radio DJ Ed Wright—based Black Music Month. On June 7, 1979, President Jimmy Carter held the first-ever Black Music Month celebration, the place scores of Black celebrities congregated on the White Home garden. “There had been Black individuals out and in of the White Home, however by no means to the extent of what occurred that day,” Williams recollects …

Williams returned to the White Home 21 years later, in 2000, after efficiently lobbying for Black Music Month to be acknowledged by the U.S. authorities. President Clinton made Black Music Month an official proclamation that yr, with the acknowledged objective of “recognizing the significance of African-American music to world tradition and calling on the individuals of the US to check, mirror on, and rejoice African-American music.” President Obama renamed it the extra fashionable (however much less catchy) African-American Music Appreciation Month throughout his first time period in 2009.

I didn’t notice that Carter’s declaration, which you’ll be able to hear on this video clip of his remarks, didn’t turn into “actual” till a invoice was handed years later and signed into regulation by then-President Invoice Clinton.

Dyanna Williams, CEO of Affect Leisure and the “Mom of Black Music Month,” discusses how the month of June turned referred to as Black Music Month—and the position she and famed Philadelphia music producer Kenny Gamble performed in its ultimate institution by Clinton.

In 1978, Carter invited a tremendous group of jazz musicians to carry out an out of doors live performance on the  White Home. It’s one of many occasions that I’ll always remember in my lifetime, since I used to be there. 

On the time, I used to be this system director of the Jazz and Jazz Extensions Pacifica radio station in Washington, D.C.; station supervisor Gregory Millard and I each acquired invitations. One of many first tales I wrote right here at Every day Kos, “Jazz on the White Home garden,” was about that very occasion. One of many recollections that stands out for me? Carter was clearly fascinated by probably the most avant garde musician performing there that day: pianist and composer Cecil Taylor.

Greg and I had been seated within the row behind the president, and we each seen that Carter was leaning ahead, staring intensely at Taylor’s fingers as he performed solo for about 5 minutes, with Carter seemingly spellbound. As quickly as Taylor completed taking part in, the president acquired up and adopted him. It struck me that there have been fairly a couple of jazz followers who felt Taylor’s free-jazz was “too far out,” however Carter had related with it—which I assumed was fairly cool.

Nate Chinen wrote about that day for JazzTimes.

“Legendary live performance promoter George Wein recollects when he introduced the giants of jazz to President Jimmy Carter’s White Home in 1978”

The weekend of the White Home jazz pageant turned out to be a slightly necessary time for the president. That Saturday, June 17, he signed a treaty promising the return of the Panama Canal to Panama within the yr 2000. He returned to Washington early Sunday morning, and instantly went to sleep.

That afternoon, I gathered the musicians on the South Garden to run down this system. It was a exceptional meeting. Benny Carter subsequent to Ron Carter. Clark Terry alongside Chick Corea. Sonny Rollins, Stan Getz, Zoot Sims, Illinois Jacquet—multi functional place. Among the artists had been going to play collectively in teams; others would play solo. My greatest concern was time. I had been instructed to limit the affair to 2 hours. With a view to meet this demand, I needed to impose closing dates. After some fast calculations, I had it found out. Solo artists would get 5 minutes apiece. Ensembles would get eight minutes. Asking Cecil Taylor to play for less than 5 minutes was not simple. However he, and everybody else, cooperated with out criticism, though Eubie Blake, who would have been completely satisfied to play all evening, did grumble good-naturedly.

The primary of our ensembles—a septet that includes Teddy Wilson, Jo Jones, Milt Hinton, Roy Eldridge, Clark Terry, Illinois Jacquet and Benny Carter—performed “In a Mellow Tone”.

It was applicable that they opened with “In a Mellow Tone,” written by the late nice Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington, a local Washingtonian. Since there isn’t any recording of that efficiency, take pleasure in this model.

Wein lists the subsequent efficiency as one by Sonny Rollins, Max Roach, McCoy Tyner, and Ron Carter doing a Rollins’ tune, “Sonnymoon for Two.”

The ultimate scheduled set featured Lionel Hampton, Chick Corea, Stan Getz, Zoot Sims, Ray Brown, George Benson, and Louie Bellson performing  “How Excessive the Moon,” “Georgia (on My Thoughts),” and Lionel Hampton’s well-known theme track, “Flying Dwelling,” which he renamed the “Jimmy Carter Jam.”

Wein goes on to say that because the live performance was ending at its scheduled time, Carter countermanded the closing order and let the social gathering go on. It was a jam session that ended with him up on the stage singing “Salt Peanuts” with Dizzy Gillespie.

Carter wouldn’t be the one POTUS to get into the act—who might overlook the closing of this jazz live performance on the White Home, when Clinton was pushed into taking part in a borrowed sax?

And Clinton would decide up an axe and play once more on the ninetieth birthday celebration for Lionel Hampton.

After all, no president has completed extra for the appreciation and celebration of Black music from the White Home than Barack Obama. I’m going to put up three examples that I’ll always remember, and I hope in the event you missed them again then, you’ll take heed to them now.

I’ll begin with 2014’s PBS In Efficiency on the White Home: Ladies of Soul.

Aretha Franklin, Melissa Etheridge, Patti LaBelle, Jill Scott, Janelle Monáe, Tessanne Chin, and Ariana Grande placed on a tremendous present, with LaBelle and Franklin knocking their musical numbers out of the park.

In 2016, jazz took heart stage.

As YouTuber Floyd Basham notes:

The 2016 All-Star World Live performance featured a solid of internationally famend jazz artists together with pianists Joey Alexander, John Beasley (Musical Director), Kris Bowers, Chick Corea, Robert Glasper, Herbie Hancock, Danilo Pérez and Chucho Valdés; trumpeters Terence Blanchard, Until Brönner, Hugh Masekela and James Morrison; vocalists Dee Dee Bridgewater, Jamie Cullum, Kurt Elling, Aretha Franklin, Al Jarreau, Diana Krall, Dianne Reeves and Sting; saxophonists Eli Degibri, David Sánchez, Wayne Shorter and Bobby Watson; bassists Christian McBride, Marcus Miller, Esperanza Spalding and Ben Williams; guitarists Buddy Man, Lionel Loueke, Pat Metheny and Lee Ritenour; drummers Brian Blade, Terri Lyne Carrington and Kendrick Scott; percussionist Zakir Hussain; trombone participant Trombone Shorty; and the Rebirth Brass Band.

I went by way of a pack of tissues throughout this particular, since we had been dropping the Obamas to the arrival of the Orange Catastrophe.

Hosted by Terrence J and Regina Corridor, the star-studded occasion featured Jill Scott, Widespread, Usher, Bell Biv DeVoe, The Roots, Janelle Monaé, De La Soul, Yolanda Adams, Michelle Williams, Kierra Sheard, and Leslie Odom Jr.

I select to skip the Former Man and any artists who hugged as much as him. 

Final yr, Robert A. Brown wrote this impassioned plea in The Washington Publish, directed to a not too long ago elected President Joe Biden.

The president’s dwelling was eerily quiet over the last administration. When Celine Dion, Jennifer Holliday, Elton John and different musicians refused to carry out for Trump’s 2016 inauguration, it might have led his administration to roll up the crimson carpet for musicians and artists typically, satisfied it will be laborious to get massive names to just accept the invites.

Nonetheless, the distinction with the Obama administration couldn’t be extra profound. The forty fourth president’s celebration of music included virtually each style possible, with nation, hip-hop, classical, pop, rock, R&B, Latin and Broadway artists taking their turns within the East Room. The sights and sounds of figures like Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin, B.B. King or the solid of “Hamilton” performing for the Obamas and their visitors was the norm. President Barack Obama used his workplace as a wonderful discussion board to show this nation and its inhabitants to our wealthy, numerous musical heritage. […]

Though Biden and Vice President Harris should be centered on massive nationwide points, I’m relying on them to strike up the band, sing a easy track or perhaps even reduce a rug within the White Home. Will probably be unimaginable to see the reemergence of music as a part of our nationwide psyche. The releasing of a 46-song musical playlist by the brand new administration to rejoice the 2021 inauguration was begin, however I hope they do extra to appease our troubled souls in a style that solely music can obtain. As a theme, I hear the 1983 track “Let the Music Play” by Shannon as our new starting. Maybe within the spirit of uplifting a dispirited nation, they’ll at the least maintain the primary yr’s live performance on Zoom.

I notice we face challenges on a number of fronts—significantly in Friday’s draconian overturning of reproductive rights—and that midterm elections loom. Nonetheless, I do agree with Brown: Music heals, and brings us collectively. And from my perspective, Black music is a robust device to do exactly that. I hope the Biden White Home will select to make use of it.

Be a part of me within the feedback for heaps extra Black music … and you should definitely share some Black music that has moved you thru the years.







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