I once heard Václav Havel say that the true story of freedom was not one of chains being broken, but rather of light and color and whimsy even. The occasion was a meeting where I had invited the celebrated playwright and Czech president to discuss ideas for a sculpture that would be placed outside a new building of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty headquarters in Prague (you can read about the episode here (Opens in a new window)).
Of course, Havel knew sacrifice and suffering. He spent some 5 years in Communist prisons. He understood toil. He was a writer after all! But Havel was a man of purpose who was always looking for beauty and meaning.
In this spirit, my notes for Labor Day.
The first Labor Day holiday in the United States was celebrated on September 5, 1882, in New York City. Now that was a year for music.
Over in London, Gilbert and Sullivan were writing up a storm. In Paris, Charles Gounod wrote his oratorio Redemption, while in Prague Smetana was composing a most beautiful quarte (Opens in a new window)t.
In 1882, Stravinsky, Schnabel, and Stokowoski were born (all three would find their way to the United States). Ukrainian composer Kyrylo Stetsenko was born that year. So was Polish composer Karol Szymanowski and Romanian composer Gheorghe Cucu. These men are largely forgotten today. It’s a pity. Try this (Opens in a new window) lovely choral work by Cucu.
Stetsenko was born into a poor family in a small village in central Ukraine. His devotion was to faith, music, and religious education. He became a Ukrainian Orthodox Priest. But Stetsenko found himself forever tangled up in politics. In 1911, he wrote a choral arrangement of the Ukrainian national anthem without approval of Russian censors. He was exiled from Kyiv (his publisher was sentenced to death). Try this (Opens in a new window): “Evening Song” by Stetsenko.
On this side of the Atlantic, America was, well, becoming America. Have a look at this (Opens in a new window): Gospel from 1882, from the Library of Congress. And this (Opens in a new window), Charleston Blues.
In 1882, the Fisk University Jubilee Singers became the first black choir to perform at the White House. Chester A. Arthur was president (Vice President Arthur had become president after James Garfield’s assassination in 1881). Native American music was being discovered. It was in 1882 that the first scholarly work on the subject appeared, a doctoral dissertation by a fellow at the University of Leipzig. That year, the Bethany Oratorio Society started up in Lindsborg, Kansas, with an Easter performance of Handel’s Messiah (the Lindsborg tradition continues today). In 1882, Yiddish theater was just about to take off in the United States. Between 1881 and 1925, some three million Jews immigrated to the United States from Eastern Europe.
But then there was Ma Rainey, my favorite. She was born Gertrude Pridgett in Russell County, Alabama, in 1882 (although accounts differ on the year). What a singer she was, and a mesmerizing performer by all counts. She became known as the “Mother of the Blues.” There’s a 2020 Netflix film about Rainey worth watching, an adaptation of the 1984 Broadway production by Pulitzer-winning playwright August Wilson.
She was a force — a Black musician, tenacious businesswoman, and open bisexual making her independent way in the segregated South. She wrote her own songs, mentored Bessie Smith, worked with Louis Armstrong, and produced nearly 100 records. Rainey’s singing would influence Janis Joplin. But first, back in her day, she started a national dance craze with a new style that overtook the Charleston.
Rainey’s performances were among the first integrated. Her appeal seemed to be universal. Seating inside tent shows was separated by race, but by the time Rainey had taken over with her full-throated, devastatingly captivating ways everyone was moving and swaying, side by side.
Here’s (Opens in a new window) “Prove It on Me Blues.”
Here’s (Opens in a new window) “Mountain Jack Blues.”
Rainey made her way to Chicago, where she lived in the 1920s and 1930s until her record label dumped her. They said her music had fallen out of fashion. She headed back south to be with her brother — her sister and mother had already died by then — where she owned and managed two theaters and was active in the Friendship Baptist Church in Columbus, Georgia.
There’s a 1981 biography (Opens in a new window) of Rainey by Sandra Lieb. There’s a small museum in Columbus dedicated to Rainey’s life and work. The museum is a house she built for her mother. “You don’t sing to feel better,” Rainey said; “you sing ’cause that’s a way of understanding life.”