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And They Lynched Him On A Tree: William Grant Still (1895 – 1978) and Katherine Biddle (1890 – 1977)

Leon Robbin Gallery
April 1, 2006
August 31, 2006

 

Items in the Exhibition:

Program from the First Performances and Undated Letter

Undated letter from Alain Locke to Mrs. Biddle. After giving his itinerary, Locke pushes Biddle to know her plans for the poem. At the end he mentions writing "Godmother," Charlotte Mason.

Program from the first performances of And They Lynched Him On a Tree, June 24-26, 1940 (The Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra, Lewisohn Stadium, College of the City of New York). 

The concept of a choral ballad on lynching in America originated with Charlotte Mason, the "Godmother" of the Harlem Renaissance, and Alain Locke, the head of the philosophy department at Howard University. Mason suggested that her niece, the poet Katherine Garrison (Biddle) Chapin, be approached about writing a libretto and Locke recommended that the great African-American composer William Grant Still compose the music (Exhibition Item #7). On 25 June 1940, this collaboration came to fruition when Still's And They Lynched Him On A Tree was premiered by the New York Philharmonic under the direction of Artur Rodzinski at Lewisohn Stadium in New York. The performance was delayed one evening due to rain, hence the date of 24 June on the printed program (Exhibition Item #4).

This unusual composition calls for a contralto soloist to play the mother of the victim, a "white chorus" to depict the mob, a "Negro chorus" to discover the lynching, a male narrator, and a small orchestra. The Katherine Biddle Papers contain not only programs for the early performances of the work, but also detailed letters that provide us with insight into its genesis, considerable reworking, social concerns, and premiere.

Text of "And They Lynched Him On A Tree" as it appeared in the program for the first performance

The text of And They Lynched Him On A Tree (Exhibition Item #1) is considerably more graphic than earlier poems that address the act, but nevertheless it leaves the details to the audience's imagination. Biddle's poem is clearly about the inherent evil of lynching, rather than the possibility of hanging an innocent person, as the narrative tells us that the victim has been sentenced to life in prison for the crime of murder. The poem is also rife with biblical references (the title itself echoes "and they nailed him to the cross"). Bear in mind that this composition is almost exactly contemporary with the most famous of lynching poems, Abel Meeropol's "Strange Fruit."

Guest list for the first performance of "And They Lynched Him On a Tree", with annotations

In light of William Grant Still's fame after the Afro-American Symphony and the political nature of the poem, the names on Biddle's guest list (Exhibition Item #5) are hardly surprising, reading like a "Who's Who" of liberal thinkers and musicians. The invitees include composer and labor activist Marc Blitzstein, news commentator Raymond Gram Swing, Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, New York Senator Robert F. Wagner, Librarian of Congress Archibald MacLeish, Secretary of the Interior Harold L. Ickes, composer Randall Thompson, First Lady Mrs. Franklin Roosevelt, editor and activist Freda Kirchwey, cantor and librettist Samuel Rosenbaum, pianist Olga Samaroff, and composer Samuel Barber.

Letters

The letters on this shelf are a poignant reminder of how challenging such a piece could be to mount Everything from the work's provocative title to the final lines of the poem was called into question (Exhibition Item #8). The conductor Rodzinski was particularly concerned about the pessimistic ending: "A long dark shadow will fall across your land!," and suggested that it be changed to predict an "apotheosis of humanity." Rodzinski' s concerns were as much personal as political, his sister-in-law and niece were applying for U.S. visas, and he feared they would be denied should he conduct a work viewed as anti-American. A suitable compromise was reached for the premiere, and the chorus sang Biddle's original text, while the program reproduced a more optimistic ending ("O trust your brother and reach out your hand ... And clear the shadow that falls across your land!"). Rodzinski's personal concerns were also addressed, and Biddle's husband, the Solicitor General, was able to secure passage for his family out of Poland. 

--Biddle's undated notes for an unidentified letter. She mentions her desire to publish the poem before the lynching bill passes through Congress. She also comments on "G's" [Grant Still's] plans for "profound and noble music."

--Undated letter from Alain Locke to Mrs. Biddle. After giving his itinerary, Locke pushes Biddle to know her plans for the poem. At the end he mentions "Godmother," Charlotte Mason.

--Letter from Still to Biddle, 3 May 1940 with enclosed letter quoting from the conductor Artur Rodzinski's. Rodzinski expresses his concern about the poem's ominous ending and suggests a revision. Still passes the information on to Biddle and asks that she fashion a temporary, alternative ending.

Letter from Arkansas Activist Adolphine Fletcher Terry to Mrs. Biddle

70 June 1940.
Terry notes that education and economics, as well as race, are major factors in lynching.

Also of concern was finding appropriate singers (especially an all-black chorus) and how to handle staging. For the "white chorus" the Schola Cantorum of New York was selected. A "Negro chorus" was somewhat more difficult to secure. Still, always the pragmatist, had faced this problem before, and in reference to his opera Troubled Island had even suggested blackface: "that's why grease paint is made" (Exhibition Item #10). After several ensembles proved too expensive, the Wen dell Talbert choir was selected for the premiere. In the published score (Exhibition Item #2), Still notes that a divided white chorus may be used. Perhaps trickiest of all was the timing of the piece (Exhibition Item #6). More than 200 antilynching bills were introduced in Congress during the first half of the twentieth century (the House passed three such bills, but they were routinely blocked in the Senate). As Still was working on the piece in January 1940, the Gavagan Anti-Lynching Bill was passed by the House. Both Biddle and Still were concerned about how the piece would play should the legislation become law. They needn't have been worried; the bill was dropped under the threat of a Senate filibuster.

Biddle Scrapbook, 1938-1942

The photographs show Still, Biddle, and the conductor John Barbirolli. Note Biddle's description of Washington, D.C., in the bottom-right clipping. 

And They Lynched Him On A Tree 
proved an artistic success for Still and Biddle. It was performed in Washington, D.C., at Howard University, in December 1940, was broadcast by Leopold Stokowski and the NBC Symphony in 1942, and was given its Spanish premiere under the baton of Carlos Chavez in Mexico City in 1944. The conductor John Barbirolli was so taken with the work that he commissioned Still and Biddle for a second piece, Plain-Chant for America. The three can be seen in the photograph (Exhibition Item #3), and the Biddle Papers contain considerable untapped correspondence about this second collaboration.