Afro-American Folksongs - online book

A Study In Racial And National Music, With Sample Sheet Music & Lyrics.

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VARIATIONS FROM THE MAJOR SCALE
Some time afterward Mr. Mees arranged several negro songs for men's voices and performed them at a concert of the Mendelssohn Glee Club of New York. One of them was "Weeping Mary," which is reproduced in this chapter. (See page 80.) This brought the topic of how the negro songs ought to and might be harmonized into discussion, and Mr. Mees wrote me:
It is a most interesting subject. The first question that arises in examining a tone-succession so strange to us is this: Did the people to whom a particular one is credited intuitively feel a harmonic substratum to the melodies they invented? So far as the negroes are concerned, I believe that the intuition of harmony was peculiar to them. X have spoken with many Southern people, and they all speak of the love of harmony that is peculiar to the negroes. If that; is true, the altered tones they introduce in the scales on which their melodies are constructed have a harmonic significance, and the frequent introduction of a minor seventh would point to a tendency toward the subdominant, as you suggest. This would be true of melodies in the major mode only, for the seventh in the minor mode, according to Weitzmann and his followers, is the normal tone in the minor mode, and the large seventh the variant, introduced because of the requirement in modern music of the leading-tone to make the cadence authoritative. .
In "Weeping Mary," which in my arrangement is in G minor, the E natural is very interesting and produces a fine effect. It is the raised sixth in minor. Ziehn in his "Harmonielehre" quotes a striking example of the same progression from Beethoven.
Mr. Mees's letter has brought us around again to the subject of the use of harmony in the Afro-American folk­songs. In "Slave Songs of the United States" the tunes only are printed, and of their performance Mr. Allen said in his preface:
There is no singing in parts, as we understand it, and yet no two appear to be singing the same thing; the leading singer starts the words of each verse, often improvising, and the others, who "base" him, as it is called, strike in with the refrain, or even join in the solo when the words are familiar. When the "base" begins the leader often stops, leaving the rest of the words to be guessed at, or it may be they are taken up by one of the other singers. And the "basers" themselves seem to follow their own whims, beginning when they please and leaving off when they please, striking an octave above or below (in case they have pitched the tune too high), or hitting some other note that chords, so as to produce the effect of a marvellous complication and variety and vet with the most perfect time and rarely with any discord. And what makes it all the harder to unravel a thread of melody out of this strange network is that, like birds, they seem not infrequently tostrike sounds that cannot be precisely represented by the gamut andaabound in "slides from one note to another and turns and cadences not in articulated notes."
The peculiar style of singing described in the concluding words has been made familiar by several singers who have used the songs on the concert platform, particularly by Mrs.
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