Colored Aristocracy

Recording Date: 
Friday, May 12, 2017

There is a good bit of information  on this title, and the particular melody, out on the web already, and I've just sort of gathered it together here. So let's delve into the tune.First, the text from the 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 Elanor 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 Seeger 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 Waltker. 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.This entry is a little self contradictory as it first states that CA should more be considered a cakewalk rather than a traditional fiddle tune, but then says that published melodies called "Colored Aristocracy", and one actually published as a Cake-Walk, bear no resemblance to the melody we are talking about here. Actually, I'm glad to learn this as I've known of the sheet music for a while but don't read music and have not found a recording to listen to, so I always wondered.Anyway, a cakewalk was a sort of dance associated with a type of music that is kind of in between a normal fiddle tune reel, a march, and ragtime. The Wikipedia entry on Minstrel Bands says that minstrel shows originally had three parts: comic songs, popular and sentimental songs, and a walk about. In the walk about the band would move from sitting to standing, and they would take turns stepping out in front of the band to dance, play, and sing. Later the minstrel shows would add the Cake Walk, which was similar to the Walk About, but with some of the members in drag as well as blackface. Here is a good page on Cakewalks, which includes links to some sheet music, and a 30-second movie from 1903 of a "Comic Cake Walk": term "Colored Aristocracy":The Traditional Tune Archive entry notes that one idea is that the term "colored aristocracy" stems from Reconstruction & post Reconstruction resentments, and that could certainly make sense. I've also read, though not necessarily from knowledgeable sources, that it was a term applied to the house slaves, to differentiate them from the field slaves. As far as I can find out, the first published version of the term comes from 1858. Cyprian Clamorgan wrote and published a short book titled "Colored Aristocracy in St. Louis," in 1858. Clamorgan was a "mulatto" barber in St Louis who also worked on the steam boats.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.Cyprian Clamorgan was a descendant of the voyageur and slave trader Jacques Clamorgan, who was one of the important founders of St Louis, and had fathered many children with a series of female slaves who were part of his business. When Jacques died he left his considerable fortune to his many illegitimate offspring, resulting in decades of legal entanglements. 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."" I have not read the book, but the reviews of the republished annotated version make it sound quite interesting. The annotator, Julie Winch, has also published a book on the Clamorgan family which I hope to read some time.So, the tune that we all play isn't one of the published melodies from the late 19th or early 20th century. Then where did it come from?There is a single source, which is a 1936 field recording by Charles Seeger at a Resettlement community. The Resettlement Administration (RA) was a New Deal U.S. federal agency that, between April 1935 and December 1936, relocated struggling urban and rural families to communities planned by the federal government. In 1936 there was a festival at the Arthurdale West Virginia resettlement community, and there Charles Seeger recorded the Rich family band playing Colored Aristocracy.I have not found a copy of the recording, but here is the Library of Congress catalog card for the 1936 field recording: thing that that is particularly cool, is that Eleanor Roosevelt attended the festival, and where she traveled so did the news reel people. So here is a short clip of the First Lady dancing at the "prom," with music provided by the Rich family band! was alerted to this clip by Elliot's Music Blog, which is well worth visiting. The page that I link to is about Elmer Rich, who is shown in the 1936 news reel clip playing the mandolin. The older fiddler is his uncle Sanford Rich, who Elmer says composed the melody Colored Aristocracy, and I see no reason to doubt that. Elmer is a fine fiddler himself, and here is a clip of Elmer Rich playing CA in 2008: He talks about his uncle and the tune, although it is a bit hard to understand his talk because of the low volume.So from there, the New Lost City Ramblers (I expect through Mike Seeger) learned the tune, and released it on their 1958 LP, where you can hear a clip of their version: "From a field recording of Sanford and Harry Rich, fiddles, with Hensel Rich, guitar, and Elmer Rich, mandolin. Recorded by Charles Seeger during the Arthurdale Festival, Arthurdale, W.V., Archive of folk Culture, Library of Congress, AFS3306 B2 (1936)".From the liner notes:"According to a 1960s interview, the Rich Family was from Morgantown, West Virginia, and were hired to play at the Arthurdale event, which was said to have been attended by Eleanor Roosevelt. Ever since we recorded this in 1958 we've been sensitive to the possibly pejorative overtones of the title. In preparing these notes, I've spoken with a few of my African American friends, and I'll try to express my very brief distillation of those talks.Understandably, people of African American descent have been searching over the years for a satisfactory and accurate term for their identity in the changing context of American life. Since the early 1800s these terms have included Anglo-African, colored (in the late 1800s to about WW 1), Negro, Black, Afro-American and recently African American. Because the title for this instrumental reflects non-pejorative usage during the time that this instrumental was probably composed, we have decided not to 'fiddle with tradition' by renaming it". (Mike Seeger)And from there, many people learned the tune, and then taught it to others.So, I worked it out from John Roberts' banjo version around 30 years ago. You can hear a little bit of his playing on CdBaby--it's track 4. Over the years  this is one of the few tunes that I've developed sort of an arraignment; I tend to play it in a similar way every time I play solo. When we play it for dances we tend to do it for contras, and always do that semi-chromatic ascending phrase in the B part. Once in a while that phrase coincides with a dance move that makes the whole thing click. 

Banjo Style: 
Rickard White Laydie Half-Spun banjo