I respond to the sound of an injured human’s voice – The Irish Times
“Excuse me,” I said to the DC Metro customer service agent after hopping off the airport shuttle. “I have just arrived from Ireland and I have to go to Corcoran Street. What is the best route to take? »
He took a few minutes to type my exact destination into his computer. “You can take the train to McPherson Square and it’s a 20 minute walk, or the train to Shaw-Howard University and it’s a 13 minute walk. But I don’t know if you would be safe there,” he advised. “That’s where all the jazz clubs are…”
I am in Washington DC for three weeks to explore the African roots of jazz and blues and to learn more about the African American experience in general so that I can understand jazz and blues on a deeper level. As a professional jazz singer and educator, I feel like I don’t know enough about the conditions that led to the formation of this music, or the experiences of African-American musicians in their home countries. ; or on jazz as part of a larger cultural movement. I have a lot to learn.
The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture is my first stop. A strikingly beautiful brown building next to the Museum of American History and close to the Washington Monument on the National Mall, it didn’t exist when I was a BA student in jazz performance at the Newpark Music Center in Dublin from 2006 to 2010. In fact, it is the newest of the Smithsonian Institutions, opened in 2016 by President Barack Obama.
So why is a woman from Tipperary to DC researching the roots of jazz and blues, and the African-American experience? This is something that I am trying to fully understand myself. When I saw the movie Ray and heard the music of Ray Charles for the first time in 2005, I just knew I had to pursue this music and become a musician. The music had touched my soul in such a deep and mysterious way that I knew to ignore it would be to turn my back on the purpose of my life.
I have the impression that it is linked to a certain soulful quality in the singing. I feel myself responding to the sound of a wounded human’s voice emerging from the depths of his soul when all else has been removed. Although Ray Charles himself was not enslaved, he learned to sing from the community around him, and this style of singing has been passed down from generation to generation with its roots in the transatlantic slave trade. slaves.
“Their song… [was] always in tears, so much so that a captain threatened one of the women with flogging, because the mourning of her song was too painful for her feelings,” wrote William Corbett in 1806.
It might have to do with the fact that as an Irish woman, I sympathize with the plight of African Americans because the Irish, my ancestors, were colonized and brutalized for hundreds of years. Maybe deep in my DNA I recognize a certain emotional quality when I hear songs from the African Diaspora and that’s something I can’t ignore.
Abolitionist Frederick Douglass said, “The songs of the slave represent the sorrows of his heart; and he is relieved by them, only as a sore heart is relieved by its tears.
Following his visit to Ireland in the 1840s and having heard traditional Irish songs (what later became known as sean-nós), Douglass remarked: “I have never heard songs like those been there since I left slavery, except in Ireland. There, I heard the same notes of lamentations and I was very affected. It was during the Famine of 1845-1846… nowhere outside dear old Ireland have I heard such mournful sounds.
The museum offers a rich insight into the experience of enslaved African Americans during the era of slavery (1514-1866); their life anchored in the trade of sugar, tobacco and rice.
“I pity them a lot, but I have to be a mom,
Because how could we do without sugar and rum?
Especially sugar, if necessary we see it;
What, let’s give up our desserts, our coffee and our tea!
William Cowper 1788
It was horrifying to learn of the “fancy girl” trade that prevailed in the 1800s, when young women were bought for sexual exploitation; and to hear that enslaved black women were being used for modern gynecological experiments.
Seeing Emmett Till’s original coffin at the museum was particularly moving. Till was a 14-year-old African American visiting Mississippi from Chicago who was kidnapped and murdered in 1955 after allegedly whistling a white woman. His mother, Mamie Till, insisted that his funeral be open casket, so the world could witness the shocking brutality and extent of the violence inflicted on her son. I was amazed by Mahalia Jackson’s recording of Amazing Grace, featured in the exhibit. Never before have I heard such glorious, soulful, otherworldly singing.
Visitors to the NMAAHC can also learn about the road to emancipation and subsequent challenges leading to the civil rights movement, as well as the racial inequalities that persist today. But ultimately, it’s a story of resilience and strength where black excellence is celebrated.
I would recommend visiting in person and trying the delicious fried chicken, candied yams and collard greens at Sweet Home Café. But the museum’s website also offers a wealth of resources for online learning.
I spent three days at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress and soon realized that I would need well over three weeks to complete my research. It was exciting to be in a room that housed such a fascinating selection of books, from Aloys Fleischmann’s sources of traditional Irish music to the collection of children’s ballads to Slave Songs of the US, The Power of Black Music and much more. At least I managed to compile a playlist that will keep me going for months and years to come!
Since arriving in DC, where streets are named after jazz greats like Duke Ellington (a DC native) and murals pay homage to singers like Shirley Horn and Marvin Gaye, I’ve discovered music black in the cultural fabric of the United States. Visiting the Lincoln Memorial, where the March on Washington took place, was special. This is where a quarter of a million people gathered on August 28, 1963 to demand civil rights and where Martin Luther King gave his I Have a Dream speech.
To know that black musicians of the time, people like Nina Simone, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, Sam Cooke, Billy Taylor, Max Roach and so many others, used their voices and ultimately their art as a means of social protest was profoundly inspiring. It was a reminder of the power of music, the power of song, the power of people who stand up for what they believe in, and that quote that I love: “It’s an artist’s duty to reflect their time…” (Nina Simone).
It also brings a greater appreciation for contemporary jazz artists like Esperanza Spalding and Cécile McLorin Salvant who are visionary in their approach and who continue to champion social justice through their work.
As I walk back to my Airbnb on leafy Corcoran Street, passing the White House, I notice a plaque that reads:
“In 1792, American, English, Scottish, and Irish laborers and craftsmen, along with enslaved African Americans who were hired by their landlords, worked side by side for the next eight years to build the White House.”
Maybe it’s not so strange after all for a woman from Tipperary to be in DC exploring the roots of jazz and blues. Maybe it’s like reconnecting with long-lost cousins or old friends…
I would like to express my gratitude to Arts Council of Ireland for supporting my research through the 2022 Agility Prize.
Edel Meade is an award-winning singer, songwriter, performer and educator working in jazz, folk and contemporary music. Her solo album, Brigids and Patricias, explores what it means to be a woman in 21st century Ireland and follows her 2017 jazz debut, Blue Fantasia.
Meade has been shortlisted for the Fulbright-Creative Ireland Professional Fellowship Award 2022-2023 and will travel to Berkeley, California in January to explore the intersection between jazz and traditional Irish music and song at the California Jazz Conservatory, culminating in a world premiere live concert performance in collaboration with Bay Area musicians in May 2023.