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25.2.04

Golliwog's Cakewalk

Golliwog on the cover of Debussy's Children's Corner, 1908 editionOne of my piano students has recently begun to work on Claude Debussy's rag-inspired piece "Golliwog's Cakewalk," the last movement in his petite suite pour piano called Children's Corner (1906–1908). (The original cover of Debussy's suite, shown at left, comes from D. Barton Johnson's online essay Nabokov's Golliwoggs: Lodi Reads English 1899-1909 in the Nabokov journal Criticism from the International Vladimir Nabokov Society at Penn State.) I had not practiced this piece myself since I was in high school, and I now have the chance to remember how much fun it was for me to learn as my student works on it.

When this student expressed an interest in the piece, I felt that I had to explain what it was about: in other words, I had to show him what golliwog and cakewalk meant. An excellent online essay on the history of this disgusting racist image (The Golliwog Caricature, by Ferris State University sociology professor David Pilgrim, who is the curator of the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia there) gives a detailed history of the golliwog and shows numerous images. Artists have been fascinated with the golliwog image, such as Damali Ayo (see his show last year at the Mark Woolley Gallery in Portland, Oregon) and Kara Walker. The Golliwog character was made into a very popular children's doll, owned by the young Nabokov and by Debussy's daughter, which was the inspiration for the composer's drawing on the original cover and for the piece itself.

The cakewalk was a sort of dance or stepping competition for a prize of cake, sponsored by a plantation owner and featuring his own slaves who were allowed to mock the airs of their masters. This entertainment was often reproduced in minstrel shows, those horrible sentimentalizing idealizations of plantation life, featuring white actors in blackface, which were one very important influence on the creation of American musical theater. (See the covers of some of these minstrel show cakewalk publications, such as Dusky Dudes Cakewalk and Colored Aristocracy Cake Walk, both from 1899, just a few years before Debussy's suite.)

It's hard for me to know what to do when I get to the point in a survey class that deals with 19th-century America. Some people think that we should just allow this part of music history to disappear into oblivion: don't let students play "Golliwog's Cakewalk" any more and don't teach them anything about the minstrel show. I admit that it does bother me to teach these subjects and have the students be exposed to these worst expressions of American institutional racism and find them funny. Maybe it really would be better just never to introduce today's students to these parts of the past. Ultimately, however, I value truth too much to edit these things out of our understanding of history.

When I looked through the catalogue of Debussy's works, I discovered that Debussy, perhaps to capitalize on the popularity of "Golliwog's Cakewalk," also composed another cakewalk pour piano in 1909 called Le petit nègre (The little negro), which I have never heard or played.

4 comments:

David McKay said...

Le petit negre is a terrific piece of music.

It is somewhat in the style of Golliwog's Cakewalk, but not as challenging.

I image you would find a performance on Youtube.

Anonymous said...

The world has gone mad if Debussy's pieces are being accused of racism! He was a man of art and the pieces (both mentioned pieces) were written for his little daughter - to imitate her toys. She was a sickly child and he wanted to amuse her.She did not live long. The message of the music is innocent and pure. Nothing to do with racism. Those are real masterpieces. It is thanks to Debussy we have jazz btw. In my humble opinion it is very narrow-minded to label them as racist and even (!) to attemt to forbid them from performances. It reminds me 1930th when Stalin banned every work of culture which was not "politically-correct"...

Anonymous said...

The author, to my understanding, is not saying that the music is racist. Nor is he saying that Debussy music should be banned. To the contrary, I believe that he is saying that, in the name of good pedagogy, neither the piece nor the fact that it is named after a racist caricature should be denied any more than Wagner's antisemitism. A student has the right to know the background of the piece, dammit.

Anonymous said...

As a piano teacher (now retired), I always felt that teaching my students music was only a small part of my job. Far more important was listening to them, to their ideas, their dreams, their hopes. In this case, what better way to have a lively discussion with students than to teach them the meanings behind these pieces, and then to garner from them their thoughts about the attitudes that were prevalent in Debussy's and Wagner's day, how far we have come since, and the sad fact that so many still hold those misguided racist beliefs.