learning about Nathaniel Dett


First of all, thank you to the 13 people who accessed this blog yesterday. Probably you’re not all actually human, but thanks to you all anyway.

I’m feeling the pressure of completing my trumpet/organ piece for Rhonda. I have a good start on movements two and three. But I hit a brick wall with movement one a few days ago. As a result I decided to switch my “B” spiritual, from “Bye and Bye” to “Better be ready.” I like it better anyway. And it’s foreboding in a way that fits my underlying Black Lives Matter theme.

Unlike the other spirituals I’m working with I could only find one setting of “Better be ready.”  It’s in the third volume of R. Nathaniel Dett’s charming four volume collection,  The Dett Collection of Negro Spirituals.

DETT COLLECTION OF Negro Spirituals ~ First, Second And Forth ...

I own three of them. It interests me that the picture above only has three volumes in it. I haven’t done my research yet, but I wonder if the fourth group is available or if it was ever published.

I know the hymn because we sing it at church. It’s in the Lift Every Voice and Sing II hymnal of the Episcopal Church. There it is the exact same arrangement as in the Dett collection and is credited to him.

I began examining Dett’s collections more closely. Published in 1936 by Schmitt, Hall & McCreary Company out of Minneapolis, each volume has a different prose introduction. I read the one for group three which has “Better be ready” in it. It’s entitled, “The Authenticity of the Spiritual,” and written by Dett, himself. It interested me enough to turn to the introductory essay to the second group, “Understanding the Negro Spiritual,” also by Dett.

R. Nathaniel Dett's The Ordering of Moses - TheaterScene.net

It was there that I began to get a feeling for Dett himself. I found this paragraph charming and read it out loud to poor Eileen:

“There are some who having been to a ‘show’, read a Negro novel (probably by a white author), or who have seen a movie in which there were colored people appearing, usually in serio-comic parts,—or who having a colored cook,— feel themselves to have an advantage. Truly, these favored few are really at a disadvantage; for had they approached the music with an altogether open mind, instinct would have guided them, more than likely, along the right path toward the solution of that which is itself elemental. But being blinded or misled by preconceived ideas, they go far astray, not realizing that though they may be enthusiastically in motion, they are not necessarily arriving anywhere” (emphasis added)

Okay, clearly the “favored few” people in this paragraph are white. This reflects the environment Dett lived in (as do we) that the normal person is implicitly white. So I love the last sentence. It drips in my mind with frosty sarcasm and wit. I began to wonder who Nathanial Dett was?

Robert Nathaniel Dett Biography | Afrocentric Voices in "Classical ...

The Groves Dictionary informed me that he had quite a pedigree. He was born in Canada in 1884. He died in Battle Creek, Michigan, in 1943. He was the first African American to graduate from Oberlin College with a Bachelors of Music degree. He  majored in Composition and Piano. He embarks on a life long career of teaching in traditional Black colleges like “Lane College, Tennessee (1908–11), the Lincoln Institute, Missouri (1911–13), the Hampton Institute, Virginia (1913–32), and Bennett College, North Carolina (1937–42). He continued his studies at the American Conservatory of Music, at Columbia University, Northwestern University, Oberlin College, the University of Pennysylvania, Harvard and with Boulanger at the Fontainebleau school in Paris; his graduate work was rewarded with the MM degree in composition from the Eastman School of Music (1932).
, composing, and continuing to learn.” (Groves Dictionary of Music, 2001)

By now, I was intrigued. I started researching him. His biography was prohibitively expensive at this stage, $150 for a used copy Anne Key Simpson’s Follow Me: The Life and Music of R. Nathaniel Dett. Normally, I would interlibrary loan this, but while the Lakeland Cooperative is back, the more extensive MELCat is not accepting loan requests.

I did find some of Dett’s music on IMSLP. I began perusing them yesterday. By this time, I realized that Dett was a composer with chops. I also had read that he disdained my beloved Jazz and Blues. I get it. But examining his work, he allows the spirit of all three genres: Spirituals, Jazz, and Blues, in the door.

I feel in love with this little piece:

 link to the PDF on IMSLP

I’m pretty sure the reason Dett isn’t better known is that he was an African American. I’m guessing that he is a good subject for recent scholarship that could off set this. I’m very curious about why his family was in Canada. Canada claims him in wimpy documentary on YouTube.  

I can see why.

P.S. I just ordered the fourth volume on AbeBooks. It was about 40 bucks plus 20 for shipping from the U.K. All four volumes are going as a set for $175. I paid .50 a piece for my three, no doubt at a thrift shop.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.