Archive Dive: Connecting African art and African-American music

Archive Dive: Connecting African art and African-American music

Bordentown Choir

In doing research for a presentation about music at the Barnes Foundation, I found five handwritten pages of notes for a lecture delivered by Dr. Barnes at the Foundation on April 4, 1926. Amazing! This was the talk he gave as part of a program that included Paris dealer Paul Guillaume speaking on African art (Guillaume was one of Europe’s leading authorities at the time); educator Dr. Thomas Munro demonstrating the influence of African art on the modern painters such as Matisse, Modigliani, Picasso, and Soutine; the National Urban League’s Charles S. Johnson reading contemporary African-American poetry; and the Bordentown Choir singing spirituals. Held on the evening of Easter Sunday, it was a quite a formal event, and it launched a tradition of annual concerts at the Barnes that continued until 1950, with spirituals sung by the Bordentown Choir in the Main Gallery.

The notes are written in Dr. Barnes’s sloping, spiky hand, in his customary pencil on a small writing tablet, which is always charming to encounter. The content of the notes is bold and exceedingly clear.

Dr. Barnes

We archivists tend to read quickly, searching for the identity of writers and the subject of their writing. But as I studied these notes more carefully, I realized that they contained Dr. Barnes’s arguments regarding both spirituals and African sculpture: that they are expressions of art that can bear comparison to any other classical art form:

“There are two outstanding facts about the music of the American negro slaves that no well-informed person would question: First, it is the only form of art that can be claimed as purely American; second, that it ranks as one of the forms of great music of all times.” 

“As art forms, each bears comparison with the great expressions of any race or civilization. In both the primitive sculpture and the music of the Spirituals we find a faithful expression of a people, and of an epoch in the world’s evolution.”  

(click letter for full-size version)

Main image: Photograph of the Bordentown Choir

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