Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Black Folks in St. Louis and Mother's Milk in Berkeley

Here's a bit of a secret about me. I was born in St. Louis, Missouri. Since I came to California as a baby, I have always considered myself a California Girl born and bred. I mean, when studying African American History , it's rare that I see the city of St Louis prominently featured in any art work, books, movies, etc.  The city might get a passing mention, but it doesn't  seem to be recognized as the pivotal contributor to the shaping of American History and art that it is. I recently attended a performance that inspired me to learn more about the city from which I hale.  I'm going to give you a bit of the information that I learned about St. Louis and then, I'm going to tell you about the wonderful performance that inspired this post.

Slavery in St. Louis

People of African descent have played a large role in St. Louis since it's founding in 1764. Early census figures show blacks both free and slave lived is St. Louis under French and Spanish colonial rule. In fact, black settlers were listed among those killed defending St. Louis from the British in the revolutionary war battle of Fort San Carlos which took place on what is now the Gateway Arch Grounds . By the 1820 census, 10,000 slaves lived in Missouri, about one fifth of the state's population. That same year, the Missouri Compromise admitted  Missouri to the Union as a slave state while Maine was admitted as a free state. The Missouri Compromise of 1820 came about as tensions began to rise between the pro-slavery and anti slavery factions within the United States Congress and across the country. They reached a boiling point when St. Louis applied for admission to the Union as a slave state, which threatened to upset the delicate balance between slave states and free states. To keep the peace, Congress  orchestrated a two part compromise, granting Missouri's request, but also admitting Maine as a free state. This in my opinion established St. Louis as ground zero in the battle between those for and against the institution of slavery.

Dred Scott v. Emerson

St. Louis as a battleground for the perpetuation or discontinuance of slavery was further solidified with the Dred Scott case. After having lived in free states for an extended period of time. Dred Scott , a slave, made the attempt to purchase his wife and two children for three hundred dollars. (the equivalent of eight thousand today.) His owner declined leading him to seek legal recourse.The Scott v. Emerson lawsuit was filed in St. Louis Circuit court in 1847. The first trial found for Emerson, however the judge of the case demanded a retrial and the second trial resulted in a victory for Scott. Ultimately, the case was appealed to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court ruled that any person of African descent whether slave or free was not a citizen of the United States. Further, African Americans should  have no claim to freedom or citizenship and as non-citizens, had no standing to bring a lawsuit in court. The Dred Scott decision from a lawsuit that originated in St. Louis, dramatically increased tensions in the pro-slavery and anti-slavery factions and was one of the catalyst that lead the country to Civil War. As we all know, the Civil War ultimately resulted in the abolition of slavery and the fourteenth amendment which establishes all those born and naturalized in the United States to be citizens. All this, from a case  that originated in St. Louis.


St. Louis also has a rich artistic history.  Part of that history is the musical genre ragtime. Considered the first completely American music, Ragtime, was popular towards the end of the 19th century and into the first two decades of the 20th century, roughly 1833 to 1917. It is the style of music that preceded Jazz.

Musical Characteristics

Structured in a way similar to the march, ragtime’s use of syncopation is largely what distinguished it. Its rhythms made it lively and springy, and therefore ideal for dancing.
Its name is believed to be a contraction of the term “ragged time,” which refers to its rhythmically broken up melodies.


Ragtime developed in African American communities throughout the southern parts of the Midwest, particularly Missouri. Bands would combine the structure of marches with black songs and dances such as the cakewalk. The music, which predated the explosion of sound recordings, became widespread through the sale of published sheet music and piano rolls. In this way it contrasts sharply from early jazz , which was spread by recordings and live performances. Although many artists performed and composed ragtime, there are three composers who were instrumental in growth of ragtime. they are as follows:

  • Scott Joplin  
  • Scott Joplin was an African-American composer and pianist. Joplin achieved fame for his ragtime compositions and was dubbed the "King of Ragtime Writers". During his brief career, he wrote 44 original ragtime pieces, one ragtime ballet, and two operas. One of his first pieces, the "Maple Leaf Rag", became ragtime's first and most influential hit, and has been recognized as the archetypal rag.  Joplin ultimately found that the opportunities for steady work for black musicians were limited to churches and brothels. As a result, he often played in the red light districts of both Sedalla and St. Louis,  Missouri. In 1893 Joplin was in Chicago for the World's Fair. While in Chicago, he formed his first band playing cornet and began arranging music for the group to perform. Although the World's Fair minimized the involvement of African-Americans, black performers still came to the saloons, caf├ęs and brothels that lined the fair. The exposition was attended by 27 million Americans and had a profound effect on many areas of American cultural life, including ragtime. Although specific information is sparse, numerous sources have credited the Chicago World Fair with spreading the popularity of ragtime. Joplin found that his music, as well as that of other black performers, was popular with visitors. By 1897 ragtime had become a national craze in American cities, and was described by the St. Louis Dispatch as "...a veritable call of the wild, which mightily stirred the pulses of city bred people. Perhaps the most famous composer of ragtime music, Joplin composed two highly popular pieces,  " The Maple Leaf Rag" mentioned earlier and “The Entertainer” . Many people may be familiar with Joplin's Entertainer composition as a result of the movie the entertainer that featured the piece.

  • Jelly Roll Morton 

  •  A prolific performer and outspoken personality, Morton made many recordings and his music is regarded as a bridge between ragtime and early jazz. His most famous pieces are “King Porter Stomp” and “Black Bottom Stomp.” Morton"s story is particularly colorful. At the age of fourteen, Morton  born , Ferdinand Joseph LaMothe began working as a piano player in a brothel (or, as it was referred to then, a sporting house). In that atmosphere, he often sang smutty lyrics; he took the nickname "Jelly Roll", which was African American slang for female genitalia. (Now, it's best not to get offended by the true meaning of Jelly Roll Morton's nickname. Why? Because the word Jazz is thought to have been derived from the slang word "Jasm" also spelled "gism " which means energy ,spirit or pep.and from that, it also took the connotation of sexuality or semen. And, although disc jockey Alan Freed used the term "rock and roll" to describe a  new, dynamic  style of music that he was playing, the term "rock and roll" was very common in the African American communities of the time in reference to sex. In fact, quite a few of the words that we commonly use today in reference to music have sexual connotations. )

  •  In any case, during the time that Jelly Roll worked at the brothel,  he was living with his religious, church-going great-grandmother; he had her convinced that he worked as a night watchman in a barrel factory.

  • After Morton's grandmother found out that he was playing jazz in a local brothel, she kicked him out of her house. He said:
    When my grandmother found out that I was playing jazz in one of the sporting houses in the District, she told me that I had disgraced the family and forbade me to live at the house... She told me that devil music would surely bring about my downfall, but I just couldn't put it behind me.
     Morton chose his stage name of 'Morton' to protect his family from disgrace if he was ever identified as a whorehouse 'professor'. Here is Morton's Black Bottom Stomp:

  • Eubie Blake 

  • Blake's musical training began when he was just four or five years old. While out shopping with his mother, he wandered into a music store, climbed on the bench of an organ, and started "foolin’ around". When his mother found him, the store manager said to her: "The child is a genius! It would be criminal to deprive him of the chance to make use of such a sublime, God-given talent." The Blake's purchased a pump organ for US$75.00 ( the equivalent of $1900 today), making payments of 25  cents a week ( roughly $24 dollars a month today) . When Blake was seven, he received music lessons from their neighbor, Margaret Marshall, an organist from the Methodist church.At age fifteen, without knowledge of his parents, he played piano at Aggie Shelton’s Baltimore bordello. Blake got his first big break in the music business when world champion boxer Joe Gans hired him to play the piano at Gans' Goldfield Hotel, the first "black and tan club" in Baltimore in 1907. Ultimately, Blake co-composed “Shuffle Along,” a 1921 musical revue that was the first Broadway hit composed by African Americans. I initially thought that perhaps the salesman was  simply embellishing to make a sale when he proclaimed young Blake a genius, but in 1946, at the age of fifty-nine, Blake entered New York University and graduated in only  two and half years. Here is Eubie Blake playing "Troublesome Ivorys" for a PBS special about ragtime in 1960. 

Of course, St. Louis is far more than civil war history and ragtime. I'm sure that the anecdotes, tales and legends about the city are wide and varied. Fortunately, so are the life histories. On  November 4, 2015 I had the pleasure of  enjoying a riveting story with St. Louis , Missouri as the back drop. On that date, your Ms Brown attended the opening of " Mothers Milk' at the Marsh Theater in Berkeley. “Mother’s Milk”, is a Blues and Gospel riff on faith, doubt and unconditional love. It is a collaboration between award winning storyteller, Wayne Harris and Bay Area music icon Randy Craig. Directed by David Ford, this piece through story and song chronicles a young man’s journey to a true understanding of the gifts and lessons that only a mother can convey. Harris weaves a narrative that is visual and profound, through song , word, and expression. We travel with him from his days as a small boy living in Arkansas with multiple siblings and an abusive father, to the days living in St. Louis with a domineering but good at heart step father. We hear his mother through his voice, singing  gospel songs, snapping peas in the kitchen and wielding her faith in God against her breast cancer. We despair at  his homeless,mentally ill sister, failing to recognize her own children and we hear and see her children's heartbreak. None of them are physically present. But, they are emotionally present and flowing  through Harris' words , expressions, and movement. We are transported to a time in St. Louis, Missouri when Union Avenue was bustling with activity-- bustling with black pride, activism and the turbulent struggles of the Civil Rights Movement.  And next ,we mourn as we see Union Avenue, with boarded up storefronts, wearing all the vestments of economic decline. Mother's Milk  is an emotionally moving, difficult and joyful experience. It is beauty and tragedy... and life. 

In closing, I heartily recommend that you take the time to see " Mother's Milk" at the Marsh in Berkeley. You will not be disappointed. The cost is $20, ten on Goldstar ( what I paid). There is a bar at the venue that sells very reasonably priced drinks and it's a very pleasant night out overall. They call St. Louis the " Show Me" state and  " Mother's Milk " at the Marsh will certainly show you a good time. Until we meet again...

Keep it Hot and Sweet,

Ms. Brown 

1 comment:

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Inspiring, thank you for sharing