‘Not Negro Tunes at All”? John Powell, Music, and White Supremacy in Virginia (PAVS 4500 student paper, spring 2018)

Wittney Skigen (Cognitive Science, CLAS 2019, & Batten MPP 2020)

John Powell, who graduated from the University of Virginia at merely 18 years old with an A.B. in music, famously composed and performed music based on the folk songs of the American South.[1] According to Powell, “Anglo-Saxon folk tunes” mainly influenced his work. However, ample evidence indicates African-American music also played a prominent role in inspiring his compositions; his repeated denial of this fact illustrates the racist views that Powell repeatedly championed, both explicitly and implicitly. Audiences across America enjoyed Powell’s work, though he did also face serious backlash from time to time. Powell used his musical acclaim to influence public policy; he played a key role in the rise of racist and eugenicist social movements and legislation.

Born in Richmond, Virginia on September 6, 1882, Powell instantly displayed musical talent and many viewed him as a child prodigy.[2] After graduating Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Virginia in 1901, Powell moved to Vienna, Austria to study music.[3] He debuted in Berlin in 1908, toured in Europe for five years, and performed for the first time in the United States in 1913 at a New York City venue. Powell continued to gain popularity, and reporters and colleagues often referred to him with titles like the “greatest living American pianist.” Powell lived with his wife, Louise Burleigh, in Richmond for most of his life, despite time spent on several concert tours throughout his career (during which Louise acted on her husband’s behalf while corresponding with personal friends and professional affiliations alike).[4] Beyond music, Powell had many political involvements across the South and especially in Virginia, adding to his prominence in daily society.

John Powell prided himself on uncovering and reinvigorating Anglo-Saxon folks tunes. He remembered growing angry when he “heard older people saying, ‘…Music seems to be left out of the Anglo-Saxon temperament.’”[5] Powell resolved to find the folk music tradition of the “so-called Americans of to-day [who] are, after all…Europeans.”[6] Powell viewed white Americans as the only “real” Americans (despite the open acknowledgement that they came from immigrants) and believed that white Americans deserved a musical tradition. Powell deeply admired the musical research of Cecil Sharp, who “turned to America and found that the musical heritage of Elizabethan times had been preserved in the Appalachians in a purer form than in England.”[7] This alleged finding of English folk melodies in existence – and in America no less – greatly excited Powell. He ultimately believed, “if America is to have a genuinely national music, her composers must go back to the songs of Anglo-Saxon people for their inspiration and their material.”[8] Powell made the revival of these songs, and the creation of such “national music,” his mission. After all, other Western nations prided themselves on their folk music traditions as evidence of their cultural prowess. Powell worked hard to paint the picture that only white, European music inspired his own compositions so that they could represent the people he viewed as the only people who belonged in the United States.

Despite his protests, many others noticed the influence of African-American music in Powell’s compositions and wrote letters to him sharing their own views on the matter. One threatened the musician; when preparing for a concert at Carnegie Hall, Powell received a letter from a “coloured gentleman of New York” warning him, “do not sing any negro songs on the night of Dec 17 because it may not be good for you after the concert.”[9] No evidence exists as to how Powell responded to this threat, but it undoubtedly did not deter him from playing his songs. Powell vehemently denied the influence of African-American music throughout his career, so this letter did not likely impact his set list.

However, the vast majority of Powell’s correspondents supported him, including Dorothy Teall, a journalist from New Jersey. She wrote that her editor “extolled” Powell’s song “Rhapsodie Nègre” as “a masterpiece of scurrilous abuse (‘You know just how much he must hate those darkies!’)” but he also believed “Powell should be ale to do something of interest…with Negro material.”[10] Teall clearly complimented Powell’s racism, and she referenced the fact that his music succeeded for that very reason. Likewise, W. Clyde Maddox, a prominent official in Richmond’s Ku Klux Klan chapter, told Powell he thought of him when “I heard some unusual musical sounds which I am sure would be of interest to you. They were produced by my sister’s backwoods negro maid, about fifteen years old…”[11] This information would not “be of interest” to Powell if his music did not depend on African-American tones, yet clearly Maddox knew Powell would in fact want to know more. The constant references to different forms of African-American music indicate the reality of Powell’s inspiration and the extent to which he appropriated Black musical themes, melodies, and lyrics.

Reporters also observed Powell’s incorporation of African-American music and often even lauded him for it. One article described his song “Rhapsodie Nègre” as “perhaps the most significant

that has yet been inspired by Afro-American material.”[12] Musicians and critics around the country focused more energy on Rhapsodie Nègre, which Powell wrote as a tribute to Heart of Darkness author Joseph Conrad, than any other of Powell’s works, so the designation of “most significant” aptly fits.[13] Another journalist complimented his “intense interest in American folk music, both Negro and white.”[14] Though Powell did not directly respond to this particular article, elsewhere he consistently denied the impact of African-American music. Others perceived this influence less favorably, with one author calling his appropriation “a form of Negrophobia.”[15] One article rather objectively stated, “In his concerto he showed his intentions of employing negro themes and rhythms as musical material.”[16] By not stating an opinion on the matter, the author of this New York Times article brought the fact of these “themes and rhythms” into plain view in an inarguable manner.

The mixed reactions to Powell’s work reflect the divisive time in which he lived; born in the South shortly after the Civil War, Powell grew up in the Jim Crow era and embodied the stereotypes of a white, affluent man in that culture. One reporter explained this when he claimed, “Old negro songs were much in the Virginia air… and so two of them…often heard by Powell in his own home as a child… are employed as themes for the composer’s ingeniously woven tapestry.”[17] Clearly this reporter favored Powell’s assumption of these aspects of African-American songs, and so it follows naturally that Powell would continue appropriating aspects. Beyond themes, he also stole or stereotyped lyrics and melodies based on African-American music.

His song “There Was an Old Miller” tells the story of a dishonest miller who leaves his mill to his youngest, most selfish son rather than the oldest as tradition would indicate. Though the theme of a dishonest miller existed since the time of Chaucer, Powell incorporated his racist philosophies in the lyrics. The miller asks each of his sons, “Jest tell me the toll you gwine fur t’take?”[18] The stereotyped spelling and use of African-American Vernacular English – that Powell almost certainly viewed as inferior slang – in general implies that the miller in this story is Black; only mild further interpretation demonstrates that Powell viewed all African-Americans as both uneducated and, more importantly, untrustworthy. Despite his superiority complex, though, he respected their music enough to draw from it – though of course he never gave credit.

Powell’s song “Pretty Sally” draws heavily on African-American folk music. To start, the song bears the alternate title “The Brown Girl.”[19] Additionally, the folk melody Powell used bears a mixture of previous uses by people of different races. When discussing writing the song, Powell emphasized his love of the melody for its “marked Scandinavian flavour.”[20] He then discussed the various uses of the melody, from a “tragic ballad” by an Appalachian woman to “a variant from Uncle Jim Oldsholm.”[21] This derogatory naming convention – referring to the man as “Uncle” rather than “Mr.” – indicates that Oldsholm was African-American; Powell somehow acknowledged that Black Americans sang this melody while still withholding any credit. The incessant appropriation underscores Powell’s musical success, though he consistently managed to deny and defer claims of African-American influence in public articles and in direct letters to critics.

The comments of others, both directly to Powell and written about him, indicate how obviously he drew on African-American themes, lyrics, and melodies to compose his pieces, yet Powell still refuted these claims. To justify his music, Powell asserted, “The majority of these so-called negro tunes are not negro tunes at all…If you analyze them, you will find they are European tunes, some of them having very strong foreign influence, as, for instance, those which show the influence of the German folk songs.”[22] Further, he claimed, “neither [African-American nor Indian music] is American. The whole civilization of the United States is European. Negro music is African.”[23]

In opposition, an African-American author, John W. Work, published his commentary that Powell’s “assertion that Negro folk songs are imitations of the white camp-meeting songs” has no basis in reality.[24] He cited the fact that folk songs of both races draw heavily on Biblical themes, so naturally they sound similar in content. Likewise, the same scales used in both white and black folk songs merely “are common use of the same material.”[25] Similarly, James Weldon Johnson, the secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in the 1920s, wrote a response letter to John Powell in The World publication. He argued even further against many of Powell’s beliefs, including asserting that “there never was an Anglo-Saxon culture” in general, but rather that “Many of the best things in America have been created here or brought by people whom Mr. Powell….would doubtless look upon as aliens.”[26] Johnson repeatedly challenged Powell’s assertions that African-American culture and people are inferior and provided evidence of mixed cultures in Europe, especially in the Mediterranean, that thrived and also did not restrict rights based on race. Criticism of this kind never deterred Powell, who continued to contend, “American music must be founded on the Anglo-Saxon tradition.”[27]

Powell built his entire image on bringing back Anglo-Saxon folk music from the depths of Appalachia into mainstream society; admitting that the music truly had basis in cultures other than “white Americans” would ruin that image. He certainly believed that European music necessarily dominated all others, as true African music – and Native American music – “is not good enough to express the emotions and moods of the white man.”[28] The racism Powell espoused permeated his music in ways obvious to all, but problematic to only a few.

Powell’s musical acclaim did not suffer due to his views on people of color, but rather continuously invited praise, whether because of or in spite of the inherent racism in his melodies. For example, Vera Bull Hull, a New York City concert manager, once tried to persuade Powell to perform at Town Hall instead of Carnegie Hall for his 25th Anniversary Jubilee Concert as Carnegie “runs into considerably more money and is a very difficult place to fill.” [29] Powell refused, however, saying, “I feel very dubious about playing in Town Hall. It seems that if I am to go through the pain and expense of a N.Y. recital it would be wiser to give it where it would bring real éclat even if the expense were greater.”[30] Pretentious though this response may be, Powell succeeded at Carnegie Hall, earning $1,103.24 (over $19,600 in 2018 dollars).[31]

Powell earned his confidence, though, as letters surrounding his Carnegie Hall concert indicate. The president of Carnegie Hall, Robert E. Simon, sent a telegram welcoming Powell “back [and sending] best wishes for a successful concert.[32] A photographer wrote to Powell at Carnegie Hall asking for a shoot “for the magazine field and salons here and abroad.”[33] Additionally, an associate editor from the Richmond Times-Dispatch even sent a message to Powell that they were “going to run this announcement [about the concert] with a great deal of pleasure.”[34] The warm reaction Powell received for this concert matched the enthusiasm that accompanied his others, and hence his haughtiness came from understandable experiences.

The musical success of Powell also benefitted the University of Virginia; in fact, Powell donated all of the proceeds from the aforementioned Carnegie Hall concert to Alderman Library at UVA. The University had no qualms about the views Powell sustained; in fact, librarian Harry Clemons wrote gratefully, “The University of Virginia Library is fortunate in its friends.”[35] UVA at the time had a thriving eugenics department, which makes the enthusiastic acceptance of Powell’s gift unsurprising. However, other entities beyond the University as a whole supported Powell; individual clubs, organizations, and faculty members and administrators wrote to Powell ahead of the concert wishing him luck. “I’d give my ‘right-hind-leg and go around on three’ if it were possible to get to New York and back again between classes to-morrow morning and Wednesday morning,”[36] wrote one faculty member. Even the University president, John Newcomb, wrote he felt “distressed [he] cannot be with grace for your concert tonight.”[37] The wholehearted acceptance of Powell, expressed through letters and telegrams, exposed the racist and supremacist views most University community members also held into the late 1930s.

Beyond this one-time donation, Powell adamantly supported the establishment of a music department at the University of Virginia as well. The Richmond Times-Dispatch reported that Powell “was keenly interested in the decision of the University to try the courses” because “it [had] long been a source of concern to him that some of the noblest of the old Virginia airs are dying.”[38] He even went as far as to say that it “[was] an action of historic importance… for the whole English-speaking world.”[39] These grandiose statements make sense given Powell’s belief that folk music formed the basis of all culture, and particularly that the folk music that these courses focused on epitomized “true” (that is, white) American culture. Powell even advocated for a research department with a large budget in order to record folk songs from senior citizens before they died.[40] He faced some backlash, however, as some felt that a folk music department, and especially one based on research, foolishly wasted money during an economic downturn.[41] The University ultimately did create a folk music department, and Powell’s music heavily influenced the early curriculum.

John Powell influenced the country in many ways beyond his music, and though they are too many to enumerate here, a few deserve brief mention. Powell’s perceived authority on race came not only from his musical experience, but also from his involvement in the founding of the Anglo-Saxon Clubs of America (A.S.C.O.A.s). Established with the paradoxical mission to act “for the supremacy of the white race in the United States of America, without racial prejudice or hatred,” the A.S.C.O.A.s provided a more intellectually acceptable alternative to the Ku Klux Klan.[42]

Members of these clubs earned more respect that Klansmen, but some still worried about what involvement could do to their public image. U.S. Army Brigadier General A. J. Bowley wrote to Powell thanking him for Anglo-Saxon Club pamphlets but requested: “Please be very careful not to mention my name inconnection (sic) with this propaganda, or under any circumstances allow my name to be published in print.”[43] The need for anonymity highlights the explicit racism of the Anglo-Saxon Clubs, but also emphasizes their popularity; even those who could not “afford to have it known that [they] have taken any interest” in the clubs still reached out to request information.[44] Anglo-Saxon clubs succeeded very quickly, with “thirty-one posts in Virginia” and three others at northern elite colleges only a few years after its establishment.[45] Others observed the rise of Anglo-Saxon Clubs, and a journalist from The Outlook Company requested information “so that if the occasion arises for comment, we may be able to refer to the subject intelligently.”[46]

Through the Anglo-Saxon Clubs, Powell advocated legislative changes in Virginia that promoted eugenics, and he inspired similar laws across the American South. Powell essentially authored the Racial Integrity Bill, which passed the Virginia General Assembly in 1924.[47] He then went on to lobby for a law to define “colored people” according to the one-drop rule. The General Assembly eventually amended the Racial Integrity law, “which define[d] a white person as one with no trace of other blood, but fails to define a colored one,” by “insert[ing] the words, ‘Every person having an ascertainable degree of negro blood, or who is descended on the part of the father or mother from negro ancestors, without reference to or limit of time or number of generations removed, shall be deemed a colored person.’”[48] Powell was clearly not alone in his racism, yet it remains ironic that someone whose career relied on African-American cultural amalgamation so wholeheartedly repudiated that very idea.

Powell’s influenced reached beyond the Virginia borders; one attorney from Atlanta, Georgia wrote to Powell celebrating “that the Racial Integrity Bill was passed by our Legislature this year and was signed by the Governor into law.”[49] Powell also corresponded with activists and lawmakers in Ohio, New York, and Oregon, proving that these views and ideas expanded even beyond the American South.[50] The eugenicist views that Powell helped convert to law impacted Virginian life, and the life of many across the South and the entire country, for decades to come.

Powell lived and died as an esteemed musician despite of, or perhaps because of, his racist views of American citizens. From his typecast lyrics and stolen melodies to his racist and eugenicist political activism, Powell personified the prejudice of Jim Crow America and ensured its lasting effects well into the late 20th century. Powell died in his hometown of Richmond, VA in 1963, leaving behind a lasting legacy of discrimination and appropriation that would take decades, if not more, for society to undo.

Source: Papers of John Powell, 1888-1978, n.d., Accession #7284, 7284-a, Special Collections, University of Virginia Library, Charlottesville, Va.

[1] Biographical Information, n.d. Box-folder 45:2

[2] Biography for Nate Oppleman, n.d. Box-folder 45:2

[3] Biographical Information, n.d. Box-folder 45:2. Phi Beta Kappa is recognized as the most prestigious honor society in the United States.

[4] Biographical Information, n.d. Box-folder 45:2

[5] Powell, John. n.d. Musical Courier, Virginia Finds Her Folk Music, Box-folder 36:7

[6] Teall, Dorothy J. Biography of John Powell, n.d. Box-folder 45:2.           

[7] Schaun, George. Musical Treasure in the Appalachians, (The Baltimore Sun, 4 Aug 1935), Box-folder 36:12.

[8] n. a., Folk Symphony, Richmond Times-Dispatch, (21 May 1932), Box-folder 36:12.

[9] Letter from a Coloured Gentleman of New York to Powell, (12 Dec 1935), Box-folder 40:24.

[10] Letter from Teall to Powell, (27 Mar 1920), Box-folder 39:3.

[11] Letter from Maddox to Powell, (3 May 1931), Box-folder 40:2.

[12] n.a., More Negro Music, n.d. Box-folder 36:18.

[13] n.a., Pianist Wrote Rhapsody Out of Conrad Book, n.d. Box-folder 36:9.

[14] Buchalter, Helen. Swing Touches Enliven John Powell “Rhapsody”, (1941), Box-folder 36:18.

[15] n.a., Raphsodie Negre, n.d., Box-folder 36:18.

[16] n.a., New York Times, (19 Nov 1913), Box-folder 29:9.

[17] n.a, John Powell and Others, n.d. Box-folder 36:9.

[18] There Was an Old Miller lyrics, n.d. Box-folder 28:15. In Standard American English, this would read, “Just tell me the toll you are going to take?”

[19] Pretty Sally lyrics, n.d, Box-folder 29:2.

[20] Notes by John Powell, n.d. Box-folder 29:1.

[21] Notes by John Powell, n.d. Box-folder 29:1.

[22] Speech by Powell, n.d. Box-folder 38:3.

[23] n.a. With Artist and Musician. n.d. Box-folder 44:7.

[24] Work, John W. On Origin of White and Negro Spirituals, Fischer Edition News, n.d. Box-folder 36:12.

[25] Work, John W. On Origin of White and Negro Spirituals, Fischer Edition News, n.d. Box-folder 36:12.

[26] Johnson, James Weldon. Powell is Asked to Define What Is “Anglo-Saxon”, The World. n.d. Box-folder 44:17.

[27] n.a., National Art Depends on Real Americans, The Norfolk-Virginia Pilot, n.d. Box-folder 44:20.

[28] Speech by Powell, n.d. Box-folder 38:3.

[29] Letter from Hull to Powell, (19 Jan 1938), Box-folder 14:1.

[30] Letter from Powell to Hull, (2 Feb 1938), Box-folder 14:1.

[31] Summary of Carnegie Hall Ticket Sales, (1 Nov 1938), Box-folder 14:9.

[32] Telegram from Simon to Powell, (1 Nov 1938), Box-folder 14:8.

[33] Letter from Slack to Powell, (18 Oct 1938), Box-folder 14:8.

[34] Letter from Meachem to Powell, (Oct 1938), Box-folder 14:8.

[35] Letter from Clemons to Powell, (1 Nov 1938), Box-folder 14:8.

[36] Telegram from UVA Faculty member to Powell, (1 Nov 1938), Box-folder 14:8.

[37] Letter from Newcomb to Powell, (Oct 1938), Box-folder 14:8.

[38] n.a., Virginia Univeristy Division Establishes Folk Music Course, Richmond Times-Dispatch, (6 Nov 1935), Box-folder 36:12.

[39] n.a., Folk Music Courses, Daily Press- Newport News, (1 June 1935), Box-folder 36:12.

[40] Arnold, George. Powell Advocates Folk Music Chair at University of Virginia, Richmond Times-Dispatch, (20 Sept 1931), Box-folder 36:12.

[41] Carrington, Walter. Opposes Folk Music Chair at University of Virginia, Richmond Times-Dispatch, n.d. Box-folder 36:12.

[42] Consitution of the Anglo-Saxon Club of America, (13 Oct 1923), Box-folder 38:6.

[43] Letter from Bowley to Powell, (7 Feb 1925), Box-folder 39:44.

[44] Bowley to Powell.

[45] Letter from Powell to Deveavours, (20 Apr 1925), Box-folder 39:52.

[46] Letter from Abott to Powell, (15 May 1924), Box-folder 39:26.

[47] Letter from Powell to Deveavours, (20 Apr 1925), Box-folder 39:52.

[48] Letter from Louise Powell to John Powell, (13 Feb 1928), Box-folder 39:114.

[49] Letter from James C. Davis to Powell, (22 Aug 1927), Box-folder 39:103.

[50] Box 39.