Wednesday, August 13, 2014

"Colored Aristocracy": The Old Time Music Tune & How It Got Its Name

Edited by Azizi Powell

This post showcases the Old Time Music tune entitled "Colored Aristocracy" and provides information about that tune, how it got its name,and what that name means.

The content of this post is provided for historical, cultural, entertainment, and aesthetic purposes.

All copyrights remain with their owners.

Thanks to those who composed this song and thanks to all those who are quoted in this post, and thanks to the performers in these videos and the publishers of these videos.

From traditional tune archive
"COLORED ARISTOCRACY. AKA and see "Southern Aristocracy." Old-Time, March. USA, West Virginia. G Major. Standard tuning (fiddle). AB (Silberberg): AA'BB' (Brody). This late 19th century or c. 1900 tune is more correctly categorized as a cakewalk (which suggests ragtime from its syncopated rhythms) rather than a fiddle tune though the popular version played by 'revival' fiddlers has been sourced to old-time fiddler Sanford Rich, a resident of Arthurdale, West Virginia, collected in August of 1936. Arthurdale, according to Kerry Blech and Gerald Milnes, was a resettlement camp for displaced persons during the depression, a project of Eleanor Roosevelt's, and it was there at a festival of folk heritage that musicologist Charles Seeger (father of New Lost City Ramblers member Mike Seeger) recorded the Rich Family for the Library of Congress (AFS 3306 B2). Gerald Milnes has located Sanford's son, Elmer Rich, an elderly man who still fiddles and who remembers the event. Mike Seegar learned the tune at a young age by playing the aluminum recordings in his parent's house. It became one of the first tunes recorded by his group the New Lost City Ramblers in the early 1960's, and introduced the song to "revival" era fiddlers.

The second chord in the accompaniment has been variously played as both an E minor and an E major. The origin of the title remained obscure, although it was speculated that it derived from Reconstruction sentiments (or resentments) about the perceived attitude (either within or without the black community) of some African-Americans (i.e. that "Colored Aristocracy" was a gentrification of "Uppity N....r"). However, Peter Shenkin tracked the title to a piece of sheet music from a 1902 revue entitled "In Dahomey," which starred the famous African-American vaudeville duo Williams and Walker. The music (entitled "Leader of the Colored Aristocracy") is credited to Will Marion Cook, words by James Weldon Johnson (later of Harlem Renaissance fame), published by Tin-Pan-Alley composer Harry Von Tilzer. Another "Colored Aristocracy" dates from 1899 credited to one Gus W. Bernard (published by the Groene Co.); it is listed as a "Cake-walk" on the cover. Neither the Bernard tune or the one published by Tilzer is the "Colored Aristocracy" played by modern fiddlers, however. Bob Buckingham reports that a fiddling preacher of his acquaintance named Buck Rife (originally from the Beckley WV area) calls the tune "Young Man Who Wouldn't Hoe Corn (The)" and gave that he had it as a youngster learning clawhammer banjo from an uncle."...
I made minor spelling corrections for several names and for one word in this quote.

Italics were added by me to highlight those sentences.

The n word was given that way in the quote.

Explanation of terms in that passage:
The word "uppity" means "to act bigger (better) than what you really are"; "to put on airs", acting like someone who is of a higher social class than you are.

The title "Southern Aristocracy" was/is used for this tune because some non-Black people were concerned that the word "Colored" was offensive to African Americans. However, during the late 19th century until around the late 1950s, the term "Colored" and "Colored people" were considered to be the most polite and acceptable references for Black Americans. Contrary to some online information, "Colored" was used for all African Americans, and not just for light skinned African Americans who had noticeable mixed racial ancestry. In that sense "Colored" in the United States refers to a different population than "Colored" in the nation of South Africa. However, since the 1960s it is unacceptable to refer to Black Americans as "Colored" or "Colored people".

Note the retention of the term "Colored People" in the civil rights organization "National Association for the Advancement of Colored People" (NAACP). In my opinion, although it would be unacceptable now to refer to that population as "Colored Aristocracy"*, the "Colored Aristocracy" title for that tune is quite acceptable.

*The appropriate term for that population would be "affluent African Americans" or "affluent Black Americans" (although "Black Americans" is a more inclusive referent than "African Americans" since a person can be a Black American but not be African American). An appropriate referent for that population would also be "affluent Americans".

About the Book "The Colored Aristocracy of St. Louis" by Cyprian Clamorgan, Edited with an Introduction by Julie Winch (University of Missouri Press, 1999, originally published in 1858)
"In 1858, Cyprian Clamorgan wrote a brief but immensely readable book entitled The Colored Aristocracy of St. Louis. The grandson of a white voyageur and a mulatto woman, he was himself a member of the "colored aristocracy." In a setting where the vast majority of African Americans were slaves, and where those who were free generally lived in abject poverty, Clamorgan's "aristocrats" were exceptional people. Wealthy, educated, and articulate, these men and women occupied a "middle ground." Their material advantages removed them from the mass of African Americans, but their race barred them from membership in white society.

"The Colored Aristocracy of St. Louis" is both a serious analysis of the social and legal disabilities under which African Americans of all classes labored and a settling of old scores. Somewhat malicious, Clamorgan enjoyed pointing out the foibles of his friends and enemies, but his book had a serious message as well. "He endeavored to convince white Americans that race was not an absolute, that the black community was not a monolith, that class, education, and especially wealth, should count for something."

Despite its fascinating insights into antebellum St. Louis, Clamorgan's book has been virtually ignored since its initial publication"...

From the book Slave Life in St. Louis
"Urban slaves [in St. Louis, Missouri] were not isolated. In 1835 an African American church was founded in St. Louis. Slaves and free blacks began to attend their own church, away from whites and white influences. Sundays were days of rest for the city’s slaves, and they gathered together not only to attend services but also to spread news, gossip, and even hear readings from the newspaper given by free persons of color. In addition, many of the city’s elite persons of color owned barber emporiums where important and wealthy white males gathered....

In addition to the over 1,000 free blacks in St. Louis who owned small businesses, were laborers or worked odd jobs, a certain elite group of African-American St. Louisans styled “the Colored Aristocracy” were large landowners and businesspersons, many descended from some of St. Louis’ earliest residents. Several owned the large barber emporiums, while others owned drayage businesses which moved goods from steamboat to steamboat on the levee. Still others, like Madame Pelagie Rutgers, owned huge tracts of land which they sold at great profit as the city expanded. The “Colored Aristocracy” of St. Louis had its own social season and debutante balls. A member of this social class, Cyprian Clamorgan, wrote a book in 1858 called the Colored Aristocracy of St. Louis, in which he profiled the group.”...

From Origin: Colored Aristocracy, posted by Q, Date: 24 Jun 09 - 01:58 PM
"Clamorgan, "Colored Aristocracy in St. Louis," further note. Publication date 1858.
This from the discussion of the University of Missouri reprint of 1999.
"When Cyprian Clamorgan wrote The Colored Aristocracy of St. Louis" in 1858, he described what it took to "make it" as an anomaly in that city. He recognized that, in St. Louis as in antebellum communities throughout the United States, to be free and of African descent meant that one did not fit into a society that assumed that black people were meant to be slaves and that only white people could know freedom. Yet Clamorgan observed that there existed in the Mound City "a certain circle: a peculiar class- the elite of the colored race" who attained their high status through "wealth, education or natural ability". And the greatest of these was wealth.

Julie Winch, who annotated the reprint of the Clamorgan book, [indicated that it] "makes a valuable contribution to the study of free blacks."

Clamorgan was a mulatto, a descendant of the voyageur and slave trader Jacques Clamorgan and one of his "Negro wives." A grandson of this man, Cyprian Clamorgan "sought to benefit financially from the sale of Jacque's land claims and the marketing of a literary challenge to the "white notion that black people were all alike because they were black.".

Colored Aristocracy [link to the book]

St. Louis of the 1850s was a boom city, a gateway to the west and to the Mississippi, with industry and monied families.

As a side note, some years ago I was at an auction of American coin silver, in which I was interested at the time. Work of St. Louis silversmiths of the 1850s was a feature, and I remember several pieces- tableware, pitchers, candlesticks- marked with the initials of one of the black societies of the time. A dealer friend if [sic] mine bought most of the pieces, for resale in the States
The term "mulatto" (a Black person of identifiable mixed racial ancestry, often considered to be a person of Black/White ancestry) hasn't been an acceptable referent for formal or informal use in the United States since at least the 1950s.

While that Mudcat discussion thread makes for interesting reading, it also includes what I consider to be disturbing, cringe worthy comments alluding to or openly chuckling about the "uppity N__" term that is still sometimes used to refer to affluent Black people instead of the referent "Colored aristocracy". For example, one commenter indicated that she refers to "Colored Aristocracy" tune as "the US president's song" - alluding to African American President Barack Obama being an "uppity N__".

Example #1: Colored Aristocracy - Elmer Rich fiddle

Old Time Fiddle Music from West Virginia, Uploaded on Nov 17, 2008

Elmer Rich at the 2008 WVU Mountaineer Week fiddle contest.

Elmer played the tune Colored Aristocracy. He and Tom O'Brien tell the story of how this tune spread from Elmer's Uncle Sanford Rich to being played by musicians around the world.

Example #2: taj on banjo.MOD [Taj Mahal]

manomite01's channel, Uploaded on Aug 19, 2010

Example #3: Sankofa Strings perform Colored Aristocracy in Saxapahaw, North Carolina

ccdrops Uploaded on Jun 28, 2006

From*Version*=1&*entries*=0 a review of the album & record "Colored Aristocracy" by Sankofa Strings [2007]
By Andre M. "brnn64"on March 9, 2010
"This is actually by the Sankofa Sounds, the predecessor to the CCDs [Carolina Chocolate Drops] who formed in 2005 after their meeting at the Black Banjo Gathering in Boone NC (as Black history fans know, "Sankofa" is a Ghanaian word that loosely translates into the appreciation of the past being the foundation of the future). The title refers to a song from the 1890s that was performed in one of the legendary Bert Williams' musical comedies about the emerging Black middle class and the cover pictures are of the groups' direct ancestors. My only minor complaint is that this instrumental version does not include the original thought-provoking lyrics. But this is no real big deal as the album itself is so enjoyable. This album also has heavy input from charter member Sule Greg Wilson, who would later make occasional appearances on the CCD cds"...
Actually, there are no lyrics to the tune "Colored Aristocracy" although some performers have made up lyrics to that tune.

I read at discussion about that song in which a commenter mentioned that the song "Devil Woman Marie" was sung with the "Colored Aristocracy" tune, but that song "seems to be a modern lyric composed by Peter Stampfel of the Holy Modal Rounders". Those lyrics are included in that Mudcat discussion thread on "Colored Aristocracy" that is given above.

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  1. The acronym B.A.Ps is sometimes used to refer to affluent Black people. "BAPs means Black American Princess or Prince and is coined from the earlier term "Jewish American Princess". Since classifies "Jewish American Princess" as a pejorative stereotype meaning a spoiled and materialistic female who is Jewish-American, it stands to reason that BAP would also be a pejorative referent.

    However, the recent (July 2014) and widely panned [disliked] American television show entitled "BAPs" follows a group of self-proclaimed Black American Princes & Princesses who live in St. Louis, Missouri. "BAPs" was also the title of a widely panned 1997 American movie starring Hallie Berry.

    In an article about that Lifetime channel television series, one cast member embraced the self-referent BAPs while another cast member tried to distance himself from it:
    "“I’m a BAP,” said cast member Anisha Morrell, 36, a public relations contractor and owner of KingMaker LLC. “Sure I am. I own it. People say it’s elitist. But I don’t want people to get disillusioned with the term BAP. It’s a celebration for me.”...

    Still, [Jason] Wilson is aware of negative connotations that can come with identifying as a BAP. “I’m not a BAP,” he said...

    “A BAP is seen as someone who is stuck up, somebody who has an elitist attitude or may be a little bit disconnected,” Wilson said. “But there’s some good things too.” " 'BAPs' TV show sheds different light on African-American experience in St. Louis"

    It's ironical that that television show located in St. Louis began airing around the same time that that city exploded as a result of a tragic police shooting that resulted in the death of an unarmed eighteen year old African American male in a small suburb of St. Louis. Two days later that 18 year old was supposed to begin attending college.

    I wonder what -if anything- those self-proclaimed "BAPs" have to say about the fact that living in the suburbs. and having middle class or upper middle class aspirations -if not being in an affluent economic class- didn't protect that Black male from (alleged) police abuse because of his race. Nor does being an affluent Black person protect Black people from systemic racism and other forms of racism. Just ask Harvard professor (African American) Henry Louis Gates about that.

  2. Stop using hyphenated American. You are either American, or something else. If you are something else, go home to where you came from.

    1. I don't agree with what you wrote anonymous. But thanks for taking the time to comment.

    2. I've never understood why "colored people" is now considered pejorative, but "people of color" is OK.

    3. Unknown, I appreciate your comment and can understand how people might be confused as to why the term "People of Color" is acceptable but "Colored People" is not.

      Here's my opinion about this:

      Terms that are used as racial referents carry cultural, historical connotations beyond their "definitions".

      In the United States. the history associated with the term "Colored people" in the United States is closely associated with times when many people, including some Black Americans, considered Black people to be inferior to White people.

      White people were considered the default population, hence the terms "White" and "non-White".

      The term "People of Color" is an alternative to "non-White" which doesn't treat White people as the standard from which all other races are considered. Furthermore, "People of Color" is a collective terms for all people who aren't White. Such a term recognizes the commonalities that these populations may have in majority White nations where White people experience White privilege, and People of Color experience personal and institutional racism.

      Also, note that although some people don't capitalize terms for races/ethnicities, including references such as "Black people", "White people", Latino/a", and "People of Color", I chose to do so because I believe that capitalizing these references signifies the respect that all races/ethnicities are supposed to receive.