Hansonia Caldwell: Expert on Music of the African American Diaspora Provides Clues for PBS’s “History Detectives”
Hansonia Caldwell isn’t a detective by trade but the emerita professor of music’s knowledge of scared music of the African Diaspora provided the clues needed to solve a mystery on an episode of PBS’s “History Detectives.”
"Slave Songs of the United States" is a book in the collection of the Mayme Clayton Library and Museum (formerly the Western States Black Research and Educational Center) in Culver City, Calif. Clayton’s son, Avery, wanted to know if the compilation, which was originally published in 1867, was indeed the first collection of Negro spirituals and presented the question to the PBS television show “History Detectives.” Wes Cowan, appraiser and auctioneer interviewed Caldwell onscreen last summer in the CSU Dominguez Hills University Archives and Special Collections to enlist her aid in solving the mystery. The episode aired in February on PBS stations nationwide. (To view the show on YouTube, click here.)
“It is not the first publication of spirituals, since they were published as individual songs, such as ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,’ says Caldwell. “But from my experience, this is the first collection [of documented songs].”
The book has been reproduced for more than a century and is still in print; there are two copies of the text in the Georgia and Nolan Payton Archive of African Diaspora Sacred Music, an archive within the CSU Dominguez Hills music department. On “History Detectives,” Caldwell presented host Cowan with photographs and information from the university’s archives on the book’s authors, William Francis Allen, Charles Pickard Ware and Lucy McKim Garrison, three abolitionists who, as part of their commitment to end slavery, wanted to present the cultural contributions of the African people.
“The people who were pro-slavery espoused the philosophy that people who were being held in slavery were not human beings,” Caldwell says in the broadcast. “So, one of the things that the abolitionists did was to document the cultural voice of the African as a way of affirming the humanity of the African.”
Allen, Ware and Garrison compiled “Slave Songs” by scribing the lyrics of 136 songs as they heard them, Caldwell explains.
“The songs had been preserved by the black community through the oral tradition,” she says. “The [abolitionists’] approach to preservation was to write it down, and they wrote down the music that they heard.”
Caldwell, whose publications have appeared in the American Society of University Composers Proceedings, the journal The Black Perspective in Music, and in the "International Dictionary of Black Composers," says that the academic recognition of African American music did not begin until the late 1960s, becoming both a study of the musics popularly acknowledged as the soundtrack of 20th century America and of race relations in the United States.
“The first real major conferences on African American music scholarship started in 1968,” she says. “For the longest time, there would be one African American scholar in music at many major campuses. This brought [more scholars] together. The study of this music has had a gradual development in the second half of the 20th century. The first half was devoted to inspiring the performance of this music, resulting in the evolution of jazz, blues, and gospel music. The second half was devoted to the development of courses and scholarship providing analysis of the work of the performers and the composers. It has become a wonderful discipline within which to study the diasporic migration of culture. Every genre that was born in the African American community soon attracted multicultural audiences and performers. In the latter years of the 20th century, the different musics have been embraced as the voice of popular culture. Every church hymnal includes spirituals and gospel music hymns. Blues and soul singers have become international stars and gospel music, jazz and rap have become international genres.”
Caldwell is currently teaching a humanities class titled, “The Arts and Social Protest,” where she discusses how the African American spiritual tradition is the foundation for the 20th century American protest song. She has written two books, African American Music, A Chronology: 1619-1995 and African American Music Spirituals. At CSU Dominguez Hills, she oversees and preserves the sacred music of the African Diaspora in the Georgia and Nolan Payton Archive. She continues to perform and conduct the musical tradition in the annual Living Legends Festival, a collaboration of the university and the local community. The 2009 Living Legends Festival Concert will be held on April 19 at Holman United Methodist Church.
The founding and current director of the campus’s Jubilee Choir, Caldwell earned her bachelor’s degree in musicology from Boston University and her master’s and doctorate in musicology from the University of Southern California. She has served as vice president of the board of directors of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association and as a member of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Educational and Community Advisory committees. She is a member of Links, Inc., a national service organization and has held several positions including arts director of the Western region and member of the National Arts Committee. A member of the Alpha Kappa Alpha (AKA) Sorority, she conducts the AKA Western Regional Chorus, and serves as co-director of the annual Alpha Kappa Alpha/Delta Sigma Theta Martin Luther King Commemorative Concert.
For more information about the Georgia and Nolan Payton Archive, the Jubilee Choir or the Living Legends Festival, contact Caldwell at (310) 243-2463 or (310) 749-3186. She can also be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Joanie Harmon
Photo above: Hansonia Caldwell, emerita professor of music and Avery Clayton, chief executive officer, Mayme Clayton Library and Museum, display the museum's copy of Slave Songs of the United States, a text that Caldwell verified as the first collection of African slave spirituals ever to be documented. On the wall behind them is a portrait of Mayme Clayton, by her son Avery, an artist and educator.
Photo by Joanie Harmon