There are digitized versions of published music by African-American composers from the opening decades of the 20th century on several Web sites. These compositions are found most often on general Web sites on American music. The American music industry began publishing music by African-American composers immediately following the Civil War. Whether these works are on a general music Web site or on a site devoted to African-American music, they are usually presented in versions for voice and piano or piano solo.
It is far more difficult to find music by African-American composers for instrumental ensemble on the World Wide Web. African-American Band Music and Recordings, 1883-1923, drawing on material from the Library of Congress copyright deposits, presents music for two types of instrumental ensemble: for band and for what musicians call "theater orchestra" or "hotel orchestra." All of the printed music comes from published sources--there are no transcriptions from recordings--and all of it is in the form of instrumental parts, ready for performance.
This site also features early recorded performances of music of African-American composers and performers. Most of these pieces are also represented in the stock arrangements; however, the recording is often of a version other than that of the published stock.
What Are Stocks?
The printed music on African-American Band Music and Recordings, 1883-1923 -- all genuinely popular in its day--consists of arrangements of songs and instrumental hits from publishers of the period for theater orchestra and for military band. These arrangements were published in the form of sets of parts and were widely called "stock arrangements"--"stocks" for short.
Publishers made stocks only for their biggest hits. John Church, for example, regularly published John Philip Sousa's marches in the following versions (as listed on the cover of Sousa's march Manhattan Beach): piano two hands; piano four hands; piano six hands; orchestra; military band; zither solo; zither duet; mandolin solo; mandolin and piano; mandolin and guitar; mandolin--piano and guitar; two mandolins and piano; two mandolins and guitar; guitar solo; banjo duet; banjo solo; banjo and piano. Few other composers were received the same spread of arrangements as Sousa.
Military Band Arrangements
The band arrangements on African-American Band Music and Recordings, 1883-1923, are for a military band--that is, a band with several woodwind players--rather than a brass band. "Military bands" in fact, were not only maintained by the military; such bands were a common part of civil life in the early decades of the 20th century. The bandstands in which "military bands" played still stand in the village greens and town squares of many mid-sized American towns, though largely rendered unusable by the noise of automobile traffic.
The instrumentation of the military band requires a smaller ensemble than the current American concert band. Many of the instruments are the same, however, and those that are different-such as the E flat horns--are doubled by instruments in modern bands. Thus a current band can play these arrangements if some of the players are willing to sit out the number.
A very few arrangements on African-American Band Music and Recordings, 1883-1923 -- "Molly Green" and the Montague Ring pieces--are for English concert band. These pieces require some re-instrumentation before being played by a standard American band. However, as these arrangements are for a much larger band than the American pieces all band members can participate.
Small Orchestra Arrangements
The arrangements for small orchestra are for what musicians call "theater orchestra," "hotel orchestra," or sometimes "palm court orchestra." Small orchestra ensembles have one instrument on a part; the piano provides the backbone of the sonority but does not act as a soloist. Prior to the invention of Muzak in 1934, small orchestras served as Muzak (as Muzak served as Muzak before easy-listening radio took its place.)
In most cases, small orchestra pieces are arrangements of the popular songs and piano pieces of the day--the music that patrons most enjoyed hearing. In some cases, however, these pieces were written originally for "hotel orchestra" ensemble. For example, Will H. Tyers, music director in the 1910s for the Mount Washington Hotel in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire, wrote the hotel piece "A Fabyan Romance" referring to Fabyan's, the railroad station nearest the hotel.
A few of the small-orchestra arrangements, especially those of Luckey Roberts, Maceo Pinkard, and Anton Lada, approximate those for genuine jazz orchestra. The earliest stock arrangements considered straight jazz are the Melrose Syncopation Series, started in 1923. A small number of arrangements are orchestral accompaniments for vaudeville singers; they are usually disappointingly straightforward arrangements from the voice-and-piano sheet music, but they are useful in reconstructing the possible sound of a vaudeville performance.
Which Composers Are Represented (and Which Are Not)
Music by African-American composers did not always appear separately from other music in stock arrangements. A large-scale medley, such as "Stern's All-Star Medley," might include songs by both black and white composers.
Many stock arrangements featured two tunes. The second tune was labeled "trio" (musicians' language for independent contrasting section). There were also "twofer" arrangements--sets of parts with one tune on one side and another tune on the other. Sometimes one tune of a twofer was by a black songwriter, the other by a white songwriter.
All the stock publications on African-American Band Music and Recordings, 1883-1923, are reproduced in their entirety. One should not assume that all the composers represented in a given medley, on an arrangement with two songs, or on a twofer, are African-American. Indeed Fred Fisher, Anton Lada, Paul Lincke, and Alfred Solman are white.
African-American Band Music and Recordings, 1883-1923, draws on the holdings of the Library of Congress' collection of music deposited for copyright. As a result, some African-American composers are not represented or have only a few pieces on the site. There are only three pieces by Scott Joplin, and W.C. Handy does not appear at all. The reason for this is simple: the Web site draws on the holdings of music deposited for copyright, and neither Joplin's principle publishers nor W.C. Handy who published his own music made a practice of depositing arrangements for copyright.
This was not an oversight. The music itself, in a version for piano or for voice and piano, was deposited and protected by copyright. It was impossible to break copyright on an arrangement of a piece without breaking copyright on the piece itself. (Several of W. C. Handy's arrangements may still be purchased from Handy Bros. Music, 1697 Broadway, #400, New York, NY 10019.)
Other important publishers of African-American music of the early 20th century are similarly not represented. One such company is the Gotham-Attucks Music Company, which regularly advertised its small-orchestra arrangements but never deposited them for copyright. This company, run by black Americans, was for a time the publisher of such important composers as Bert Williams and Will Marion Cook, both represented here by music from other publishers. Gotham-Attucks also published the pioneering black musicals Abyssinia and Bandana Land.
Nonetheless, the key figures in African-American composition for the early years of the 20th century are well represented: J. Rosamond Johnson, writer of "Lift Every Voice and Sing" and Robert Cole, partner of J. Rosamond Johnson and his brother James Weldon Johnson. These three men were considered one of the most powerful songwriting teams of the first decade of the 20th century. African-American Band Music and Recordings, 1883-1923, also features Gussie L. Davis, writer of tearful Gay Nineties songs including "In the Baggage Coach Ahead"; James Reese Europe, bandleader for Vernon and Irene Castle and leader of the World War I band which brought jazz to France; and stormy petrel Will Marion Cook, whose Clorindy (1898) was the first black musical comedy on Broadway (but who couldn't keep a publisher). Additionally, ragman Luckey Roberts; Chris Smith, whose "Ballin' the Jack" is the nonpareil New Orleans dance song; and Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake, who revived the black musical in 1921 with Shuffle Along, are represented.
African-American Band Music and Recordings, 1883-1923, also includes other important figures of the time: Will H. Tyers, the sole black musician who publishers trusted as an arranger; and Al Johns, whose piano novelties translate delightfully to band and orchestra, and whose Bible Stories is now a campfire song ("Come, come, everybody come / Come to the Sunday School and make yourself to home"). Joe Jordan, who wrote for Fannie Brice and who was still going strong in the 1940s; Maceo Pinkard, who wrote for Bessie Smith; vaudevillian Sidney Perrin; Will Accooe, equally adept at waltz and novelty numbers and whose name proved nearly unspellable to music publishers' engravers; and James T. "Tim" Brymn, writer of one of the first pieces with the word "jazz" in its title, also have pieces in African-American Band Music and Recordings, 1883-1923. The site also features composers who are black but not American: Alton A. Adams from the Virgin Islands, the first black bandmaster of the U.S. Navy; Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, an Afro-British man; and Montague Ring, the daughter of black tragedian Ira Aldridge.
All of these composers wrote hit music, heard in hotel restaurants as well as in the small-town bandstands of America. This music still retains its ability to delight.