Posts Tagged violin

In memory of Elijah McClain (1996 – 2019), a Douglassonian violinist

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Dr. Frederick Douglass: “Sometimes … I lay me dear, old fiddle aside, and listen to the soft, silent, distant music of other days, which, in the hush of my spirit, I still find lingering somewhere in the mysterious depths of my soul.”

Fred & Joseph Douglass

Frederick Douglass alongside grandson Joseph Douglass. (Library of Congress)

“I sometimes (at long intervals) try my old violin; but after all, the music of the past and of imagination is sweeter than any my unpracticed and unskilled bow can produce. So I lay my dear, old fiddle aside, and listen to the soft, silent, distant music of other days, which, in the hush of my spirit, I still find lingering somewhere in the mysterious depths of my soul.”

SOURCE:
Holland, Frederic May. Frederick Douglass: The Colored Orator (1895 edition), p. 335.

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Harvard’s John Stauffer has actively perpetuated a lie about Anna teaching Frederick how to play the violin for a decade. It is unnecessary and needs to be corrected. (Part 1)

Stauffer in BaltimoreLast year I saw the last show of The Agitators at the Geva Theatre in Rochester. Among some of my critiques of the play was a scene that insinuated Anna Douglass played the violin in tandem with her husband, Frederick.

While not a major technical foul it struck me as forced, unnecessary and without any source provenance I’d seen or could recall. While it was in the context of a play I can understand the need for imagination but the play’s handbill made the point that a dramaturge had closely reviewed the play. Mentioned as folks who had lent their expertise was Harvard’s John Stauffer.

In conversations with Douglassonians following the play it was advanced that Stauffer was the likely source for the violin reference as his 2008 book, Giants, makes mention of this make-believe embellishment on page 71.

Her name was Anna Murray and she was a free woman, having been born free on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. She had almond-shaped eyes, a full round face, and dark skin, and she worked as a maid for the Wells family on South Caroline Street in Baltimore. At twenty-five, she was five years older than Frederick and had moved to Baltimore at age seventeen. Quiet and hardworking, she was virtually illiterate but could read music, and when she played Haydn or Handel on her violin her hymns seemed to enchant the room. She taught Frederick the violin, he was a quick study, and soon they were playing duets.

This weekend I met Stauffer for the first time.

I asked him about the reference of Anna teaching Frederick how to play the violin. He told me it was in Life and Times and said he’d send me the citation. Since he has yet to do so I am taking the initiative.

NO existing references in Life and Times in either 1881 or 1892 revision.

1881 version of Life and Times references to the violin.

p. 143

The fiddling, dancing, and “jubilee beating” was carried on in all directions. This latter performance was strictly southern. It supplied the place of violin, or of other musical instruments, and was played so easily that almost every farm had its “Juba” beater.

1892 version of Life and Times references to the violin.

p. 181

The fiddling, dancing, and “jubilee beating” was carried on in all directions. This latter performance was strictly southern. It supplied the place of violin or other musical instruments and was played so easily that almost every farm had its “Juba” beater. The performer improvised as he beat the instrument, marking the words as he sang so as to have them fall pat with the movement of his hands.

p. 691

But of all the interesting objects collected in the Museum of Genoa, the one that touched me most was the violin that had belonged to and been played upon by Paganini, the greatest musical genius of his time. This violin is treasured in a glass case and beyond the touch of careless fingers, a thing to be seen and not handled.

p. 692

So this old violin, made after the pattern of others and perhaps not more perfect in its construction and tone than hundreds seen elsewhere, detained me longer and interested me more than anything else in the Museum of Genoa. Emerson says, “It is not the thing said, but the man behind it, that is important.” So it was not this old violin, but the marvelous man behind it, the man who had played on it and played as never man played before, and thrilled the hearts of thousands by his playing, that made it a precious object in my eyes. Owing perhaps to my love of music and of the violin in particular, I would have given more for that old violin of wood, horse-hair, and catgut than for any one of the long line of pictures I saw before me. I desired it on account of the man who had played upon it–the man who revealed its powers and possibilities as they were never known before. This was his old violin, his favorite instrument, the companion of his toils and triumphs, the solace of his private hours, the minister to his soul in his battles with sin and sorrow. It had delighted thousands. Men had listened to it with admiration and wonder. It had filled the largest halls of Europe with a concord of sweet sounds. It had even stirred the dull hearts of courts, kings and princes, and revealed to them their kinship to common mortals as perhaps had been done by no other instrument. It was with some difficulty that I moved away from this old violin of Paginini.

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We will follow-up this post with the existing source material which details how, where and when Douglass took up the violin, as well as a scholarly critique of Stauffer’s presentation on Douglass at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum where he failed to acknowledge the scholarship of Baltimorean Douglassonian Dr. Benjamin Quarles of Morgan State University, among other errors.

We are critical of “Douglass experts” at Yale and Harvard because their erroneous scholarship and speculation should not be acceptable from a high school student let alone from Professors at these two prestigious universities.

It shouldn’t be me calling them out, but call them out I will. Anything less would be a disservice to the truth.

 

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Support creation of Frederick Douglass mural at 16th & W Street SE with a small donation!

The new owner of the corner store at 16th & W Street SE in Old Historic Anacostia has supported an effort to create a mural on the 16th Street SE side of his building which will bring attention to and honor the Frederick Douglass Bicentennial.

Our ambitious plan for installation is BEFORE and/or during Saturday, Feb. 17, 2018, coinciding with the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site’s celebration of the Douglass birthday with speakers / presenters mostly from outside of the community. The mural installation will involve the local community and bring the spirit of the Frederick Douglass Bicentennial to the streets he walked and neighborhood he called home.

We are seeking to cover the costs of the muralist’s design time and labor, in addition to costs of materials such as paint, brushes, painter’s tape and other incidentals.

There will be outreach to involve local children and teenagers and local media to generate positive attention to the legacy and importance of Frederick Douglass to the local community of Old Anacostia and specifically the inhabitants of W Street SE and surrounding environs.

To support this effort please consider making a small donation.

Thank you!

https://www.gofundme.com/frederick-douglass-community-mural

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Frederick Douglass as profiled by Jane Marsh Parker [Salt Lake Evening Democrat, April 23, 1887, p. 4.]

“A marked characteristic of Frederick Douglass is his love for music. When but a little fellow he would go up to “the great house” to hear the violin play for the dancers. The fiddler, he says, did not play common airs, but the best music, and while he listened the little yellow boy under the window forgot everything else. Love of music drew him to the Methodist meetings, for the singing was music to him, and he joined in with a will. It was at these meetings he began to speak in public, and discovered how well he could talk and the pleasure in being praised for the same. When a Sunday school exhibition by the free negroes was in prospect he found a chance for exercising his budding oratory. He bought a “speaker” with the “tips” his master had given him for blacking boots, and selected a piece with a plenty of big words – a college oration was wherein expounded what man can by imagination. The words were Greek to him, but he particularly liked rolling out: “He can soar aloft where stars glitter on the mantle of light and a more effulgent sun lights up the blushes or morning.”

Talking with Frederick Douglass one is sometimes inclined to think that, interesting as his autobiography is, it does not contain many of the most interesting experiences of his life, those he once thought, perhaps, insignificant to the public. On his wife’s piano at Cedar Hill you may see the very same music book that he slipped into his bundle when he skipped out of Maryland. It is worth something to see him standing with his violin singing with Mrs. Douglass those old “Seraph” hymns. If you had breakfast with him on a Sunday morning he will pass you with his own hand the Maryland biscuit, and is it not worth knowing that are just like the biscuits “Miss Lucretia” used to give him when half starved he sang under her dining room window? “I used to wish I could have my fill of them, and now I mean to have, you see?”

There was living in Washington a year of so ago an old colored man, who was a fellow slave with “Fred,” as he still calls him. His wife was the daughter of the old fiddler of “the great house.” Hearing them talk together – the recorder of the District of Columbia, and the tender of a furnace in the Capitol – laughing merrily over reminiscences of the plantation, was a unique experience.

“No, I don’t remember anything special that Fred used to do in them days,” said the old man in reply to probing inquiry, “only he jes wouldn’t be put upon and wanted to boss everything.”

Full story available HERE:

SOURCE:

Salt Lake Evening Democrat, April 23, 1887, p. 4.

* This story was re-printed in papers throughout the country. *

Jane Marsh Parker was friends with the Douglasses for decades and contributed articles to leading magazines of the late 19th century and early 20th century. She wrote novels as well as histories, including an 1884 book about the history of Rochester, New York which features Frederick Douglass.

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Joseph Douglass, grandson of Frederick Douglass, the world’s first famous black American violinist

Library of Congress

Joseph Douglass was born in the Anacostia area July 3, 1869 to Charles and Mary Elizabeth Douglass, their second child and only that would live to adulthood. Following in the path of his famous grandfather and father, Joseph took up the violin at a young age, receiving classical training at the New England Conservatory for five years and later the Boston Conservatory. According to a history of black American music, Joseph would become the “first black violinist to make transcontinental tours and was the direct inspiration for several young violinists who later became professionals.” In his role as director of the department of music at Howard University and headmaster at music schools in New York, Joseph helped cultivate the budding talent of those who came behind him. According to his obituary in the Post from December 8, 1935, “His appearances at the White House were regularly scheduled during administrations of Presidents McKinley, Roosevelt, and Taft, after which he undertook concert work.” If only his grandfather had been there to see it.

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Frederick Douglass surprised Dublin merchant by playing “Rocky Road to Dublin” [Wichita Daily Eagle, November 24, 1894]

Frederick Douglass was a renaissance man. We know this. But did you know this…? [First Column, sub-heading “An Amazed Son of Erin”]

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Frederick Douglass enjoyed playing “Swanee River” on his violin for friends & family

From the hills of Frederick Douglass’ home in Anacostia the strings of a violin could often be heard wafting through the country air. Self-taught as a young man, Frederick Douglass delighted in playing songs for his many guests. In later years his grandson’s study and performance of the violin would take him across the world.

One of the many songs Frederick enjoyed playing was “Swanee River.”

Note: This is the best we could find on YouTube.

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