Hearing Outside the Lines: Black Music in Eighteenth-Century Virginia

Fri, Nov 19, 2021
12:00 pm EST - 1:30 pm EST

In 1792 slaveholders in Virginia tried to silence news of uprisings in what is now Haiti. They passed the “Act against Divulgers of False News. ” A year later slaveholder John Randolph heard whispers of enslaved people outside his Richmond window and felt the tremors of revolution. By 1800 governing bodies in slave societies across the Global South tried to shut down communication between colonies. The archive paints a clear picture of John Randolph himself and a detailed sketch of his and others’ mechanisms of control. Predictably it leaves few traces of those who whispered outside Randolph’s window, what they whispered and how they whispered.

The silence of the archive is by now well known; only a handful of sources from before the civil war preserve written transcriptions of music played by Black Americans; many accounts written by both white and Black observers are vague, highly mediated, and rooted in White supremacy. Musical practices are referenced but we scholars and performers have not yet marshalled our scholarly and creative resources to amplify these practices for modern audiences. This presentation introduces a collaborative project based at three public institutions in the state of Virginia that joins others engaged in amplifying the Black music of early America. Our project rooted in a Hemispheric Virginia is comprised of teaching, performance, and research. It aspires to do what Hazel Carby describes as a process of disentangling lives and stories. A commitment to creative approaches to memory and to echoes of past sounds means that our project is rooted in a long eighteenth century but that it listens across temporalities.


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Emily H. Green is Associate Professor of Music at George Mason University. She has written Dedicating Music, 1785–1850, has co-edited with Catherine Mayes Consuming Music: Individuals, Institutions, Communities, 1730–1830, and has published articles in the Journal of American Musicological SocietyEighteenth-Century Music, the New York TimesNewMusicBox, and other outlets. Partly because of her location in Northern Virginia, her scholarly thinking has turned towards the written and silent histories of local musicians. Recently, she has been named a Fenwick Fellow at George Mason University, and her work with Bonnie Gordon, Michael Nickens, and Mary Caton Lingold on The Music of Early Black Virginians has won a 4-VA grant. She also plays keyboard instruments.

Bonnie Gordon is an Associate Professor of music at the University of Virginia. Gordon is a music historian who works across disciplines and creative practices. She has just completed a book manuscript called The Castrato, The Cat Piano and Other Strange Sounds and is working on one called Jefferson’s Ear. Her previous books include Monteverdi’s Unruly Women (Cambridge University Press, 2004) and the co-edited interdisciplinary and cross-cultural volume of essays, The Courtesans Arts (Oxford University Press, 2006). She is a founding faculty member of the Equity Center. In addition to her scholarly work, she has published in the New York TimesWashington PostSlate and the Charlottesville Weekly. She plays jazz, rock, and classical viola.