Processing the Robert MacGimsey Collection

Slave Songs of the Georgia Sea Islands by Lydia Parrish

Robert MacGimsey (1898-1979) was a lawyer, composer, whistler, radio performer, and in my eyes, an ethnomusicologist. He followed his father’s footsteps and practiced law, but MacGimsey’s passion was always music. His popular compositions include “Shadrack” and the Christmas song “Sweet Little Jesus Boy.” In addition, he was a three-tone whistler (I can’t even whistle one tone!). MacGimsey was so popular for his whistling that, at the time of the Depression, he was the highest paid performer ever. He was paid $100/minute to whistle on the radio! Keep in mind that before the era of television, radio was the main form of entertainment and radio performers were celebrities and household names. What intrigues me the most, though, is MacGimsey’s lifelong project of documenting and preserving African American folk spirituals.

When I arrived at ASU, I was tasked to process the collection of a former ASU professor of ethnomusicology. Quickly I discovered Robert MacGimsey’s 7″ reel tapes of field recordings of African American folk spirituals. Thus, we found a gem of a collection within the professor’s collection! My curiosity for these spirituals led me to extract and completely focus on the MacGimsey materials. While I rehoused the professor’s materials, the MacGimsey collection is described item-by-item (minus a handful of manuscripts with illegible handwriting, to be reviewed later), placed into series, and I’m currently drafting the finding aid.

Robert MacGimsey was born in Pineville, Louisiana. African American folk spirituals were embedded in his life since birth. He grew up on a plantation and his parents employed African Americans, many former slaves, for help in their house and on the farm. MacGimsey’s nanny, whom he referred to as Aunt Becky, sang spirituals to him as a baby. Many of the hired help on his family’s property became mentors of Robert’s. They always taught him songs and he even attended Baptist church with his “uncles” to participate in singing spirituals. Thus, his passion in life was to learn, document, preserve, transcribe and make accessible to the public African American folk spirituals from the American South. The book pictured above, “Slave Songs of the Georgia Sea Islands”, includes music transcribed by MacGimsey. As a trained composer, MacGimsey transcribed these songs, previously transmitted via oral culture, onto paper. As a radio performer, he often sang folk spirituals on-air. Again, keep in mind that MacGimsey performed pre-Civil Rights Movement, so although it would be best for the original singers to perform, the performers were probably barred from doing so. I believe MacGimsey was the best advocate for the singers as he could be in that pre-Civil Rights Movement era. For instance, on his 7″ tape reels, he labeled the singers individually. Often ethnomusicologists of that era didn’t treat their performers/informants as individuals, and thusly never gave credit where it was due. Instead, performers/singers/informants were just the “vehicles” of music, not recognized individuals of artistic expertise. MacGimsey, on the other hand, took great care to list the individual whom first taught him a song or the individual whom lent their voice to field recordings. Also, he aimed to maintain the dialect of singers in his transcriptions, while he considered other transcriptions as “white-washed.”

Now, what does ethnomusicology or African American folk spirituals have to do with dancePersonally, I see music and dance as imbricated and often dependent genres of performance. Turns out I’m not the only one, either! Check out the Society of Ethnomusicology’s section on Dance, Movement, and Gesture. African American folk spirituals were performed in multiple sites – while working outside, in private, and at church during the ring shout. A ring shout describes church worshippers shuffling and stomping in a circle together, often with ecstatic gestures. In an individual setting, folk spirituals might be sung while working outside on a plantation, the music providing rhythm (and solace) to the gestures of manual labor.

It was difficult to parse out MacGimsey’s transcriptions of folk spirituals from his original compositions (spirituals did influence his own song-writing), but I was able to identify transcriptions with the book Plantation Songbook: the Original Manuscript Collection of Robert MacGimsey. I highly recommend it to learn some songs, but it also includes short essays that reveal his personal relationship to folk spirituals and its performers and his passion for accurate documentation.

I’ll update when this collection is public. First we have to send all the reels to a vendor to digitize the audio. Can’t wait to hear it!

Interesting fact: he was commissioned, as an “expert of Negro folk spirituals” by Disney to write music for the controversial movie “Song of the South.” He wrote many songs for the movie (I’ve seen the original manuscripts!) but only the song “How Do You Do?” made it into the movie.