Musical Borrowing
An Annotated Bibliography

Individual record

[+] Doktor, Stephanie Delane. “How a White Supremacist Became Famous for His Black Music: John Powell and Rhapsodie Nègre (1918).” American Music 38 (Winter 2020): 395-427.

In his most famous piece, Rhapsodie nègre (1918), composer and white supremacist activist John Powell utilizes the language of primitivist modernism to create a sonic version of Jim Crow racial hierarchy. Primitivist modernists in Europe fixated on depictions of “African” savages closely related to the contemporary pseudoscience of social Darwinism. Powell’s detailed program notes for Rhapsodie outline a primitivist narrative as applied to Black Americans. Musically, Rhapsodie is constructed from five themes used to mark a distinction between blackness and whiteness. The first three themes use ragtime idioms constructed in a repetitive and often disjunct manner to represent Powell’s belief that blackness constitutes a primitive, sexual threat. The fourth theme, a setting of the spiritual Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, begins a dramatic shift in the tone of the piece to one of control and beauty. Powell fills this section with markers of sonic whiteness building to a grand orchestral texture with precisely balanced phrases only to end in a jarring anticlimax. By setting Swing Low in this ostentatious and performative manner, Powell conveys his belief that Black spirituals were ultimately inferior imitations of white Protestant camp songs. The fifth theme is also based on a spiritual: I Want to Be Ready. Unlike the previous section, Powell uses ragtime and proto-jazz textures and harmonies to set the tune, which Powell describes in his program notes as suggestive of the violent sexuality he associates with blackness. The extent of Powell’s racist politics—and consequently the ways his politics shape the caricature of Black music in Rhapsodie—were largely unknown to critics and audience in the 1920s, who generally understood the piece in terms of primitivist modernism and the later symphonic jazz trend, both of which also have problematic relationships with Black music and musicians. The reason that audiences did not hear Powell’s deep-seated racism in Rhapsodie was that modernist art itself was grounded in conceptions of racial hierarchy.

Works: John Powell: Rhapsodie nègre (399, 401, 408-416)

Sources: Anonymous: Swing Low, Sweet Chariot (399, 401, 408-14), I Want to Be Ready (401, 414-16)

Index Classifications: 1900s

Contributed by: Matthew Van Vleet

Except where otherwise noted, this website is subject to a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License
Musical Borrowing and Reworking - - 2024
Creative Commons Attribution License