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Publishes Work on Music

trotter musical black american

James Trotter never lost his racial consciousness. His work on music allowed him to express his admiration for blacks and their musical achievement and to draw upon the musical training that he had received early on. Though by no means an accomplished musician or music scholar, in 1878 Trotter published the work, Music and Some Highly Musical People , an important historical work. This was the first survey of American music that, according to Eileen Southern in The Music of Black Americans , explored “a body of American music that cut across genres and styles.” The book was well received and reprinted in 1880, 1881, and again in 1969, when its popularity resurfaced. Some writers claim that the book was important to the musical development of poet James Weldon Johnson.

In the preface, Trotter wrote that his intent was to provide a service to “some of its noblest devotees and the race to which the latter belong,” and not so much to “the cause of music itself.” His work includes biographical sketches and images of many remarkable musicians of that era, including over forty individuals and groups, such as singer Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield (the “Black Swan”), pianist Thomas Greene Bethune (“Blind Tom”), vocalists the Hyers Sisters (Anna Madah and Emma Louise), bandleader Frank Johnson, the Georgia Minstrels, and the Fisk Jubilee Singers. Trotter praised the slave spirituals that these singers from Fisk University sang, noting that they “have been sung by the American bondmen in the cruel days of the past.” These had “originated with the slave,” he added. The songs were spontaneous “from souls naturally musical.” Quoting an unnamed but eminent writer, he said that the songs formed “the only native American Music,” or the spiritual. Added to this is a section with brief sketches of obscure musicians. An appendix containing thirteen vocal and instrumental pieces by black composers concludes the work. There are in the book press notices, reproductions of recital programs, essays on topics such as symphony orchestras in New Orleans, and The Colored American Opera company.

Trotter continued his work at the post office until racial injustice raised its ugly head—a white employee was promoted over him to a chief clerkship post. Although he felt secure in his post and considered the salary adequate, this was a racial insult that he found intolerable. In protest, he resigned. The next few years he engaged in a number of enterprises, such as musical promoter, real estate agent, and local agent for a telephone company that competed with the Bell system. In his musical promotions, in 1883 he and friend William Dupree managed Henrietta Vinton Davis’ dramatic recitals. Musicians and assisting artists were involved in the recitals. Trotter and Dupree also managed the musical career of concert singer Marie Selika and others. He had become highly respected in the white Hyde Park section where he lived. On July 4, 1884, Trotter was called on to give a Fourth of July speech to white residents of Hyde Park.

Around this time as well, Trotter switched from the Republican to the Democratic Party. His interest in the political arena was great. In the fall of 1883 he served in the Benjamin F. Butler Democratic campaign for Massachusetts governor. When Butler won, Trotter celebrated openly by letting his views become known in the press— The New York Globe , then black America’s most influential newspaper. The black Democrats of New England preferred to call themselves Independents. They held a conference in Boston in 1886 and Trotter served as temporary chair. When Rhode Island’s black abolitionist George Downing declined the post, Trotter was elected permanent chair. From his position he stressed the importance of the black ballot and of political independence. He urged blacks to resist white oppression; he said the condition of blacks resulted from the manner in which they allowed themselves to be treated. Yet, according to Fox in The Guardian of Boston , Trotter was a race leader, “militant but a trifle distant, speaking down to the race from the comfortable life in Hyde Park.” Although he was genuine in his concern for his race, he was fortunate enough to have elevated himself through his accomplishments and “he expected others to do the same through protest and work.”

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