Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Native Sons of Northborough, Part One

I grew up in Northborough, Massachusetts. It's a small, suburban town where little extraordinary happens--trust me, I lived with the town's police chief for twenty years. Northborough also doesn't have the rich history that other Massachusetts towns/cities do--Henry Walden Thoreau didn't build a cabin within town limits, John Adams didn't own a farm there, and James Naismith didn't throw a ball through into a Northborough peach basket. But, there are a more than a few individuals who were either born in Northborough or who lived there for substantial periods whose ties to Northborough should be celebrated, and William Francis Allen (1830-1889) is one of them.

Allen was an educator whose career seems fairly uninspiring: he spent 8 years as an assistant principal at a high school and 22 years as a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. While years of academic service are highly admirable (at least from my admittedly biased perspective), there are many other denizens of Northborough who have gone on to careers in academia; why does William Francis Allen deserve to be honored more than any of these other individuals?

Allen deserves our approbation--at least in part--because he made modern gospel music possible. In 1867, he published Slave Songs of the United States, a collection of the lyrics and melodies that slaves sang as they worked on southern plantations. To make a long story short, modern gospel music is descended from--or at least heavily influenced by--slave melodies like the ones Allen transcribed. His collection was the first of its kind and prompted other individuals to supplement his musical collection with songs of their own. Slave songs really took off nationally in the 1870s, when the Fisk Jubilee Singers--a group of 8 poor African Americans--toured the northeast singing harmonized versions of these songs to sold out crowds, eventually earning enough money on a European tour to found Fisk University. (If you're interested in a little more information on the history and origins of gospel music, my 1,000 word essay on the subject can be found here.)

I love gospel music--I love singing it and I love listening to it--and I love the fact that it was made possible, in no small part by a native son of Northborough. All hail William Francis Allen--especially if you're Algonquin High School. Shouldn't one of the songs he transcribed be sung in at least one concert each year? I'm only sad that I didn't discover this information last year, when ARHS could have put on a special concert for the 140th anniversary of Slave Songs. Oh well--there's always 2017!

PS-I ran across this information in no small part because Congress has named September Gospel Music Heritage Month. They did so largely because of lobbying by the Gospel Music Channel. Now, I'm fine with honoring a musical tradition that is uniquely American--but I'd like to honor gospel music because it is of intrinsic value, not because a Gospel Music Heritage Month is worth some specific sum of money to a corporation. Remember Robert Reich's warning in Supercapitalism that corporations had hijacked Washington? Next thing you know the Quaker Oats company will be lobbying for an official recognition of December as Quaker Heritage Month and asking us to buy their oats as an official means of expressing our appreciation for William Penn and other important Quakers in American history. Gag me--and get corporate money out of Washington!


Schenewarks said...

Never ever knew this about Northboro - thanks for investigating. Loved the article - you're so good! Amy Jo

Becky said... intimidatingly (is that a word?) smart brother...I received the book you purchased for me the other day. Can I say OVERWHELMED? This will NOT be an easy read for me. But...I promised to read it and so I will carry on! Love you.