Photo of the exterior of the Brill Building in New York City.

What Do We Hear?

Esau McCaulley is described on his homepage as “Author” and “Public Theologian.” The title of one of the books written by the associate professor of the New Testament at Wheaton College provides a good sense of both of those roles: Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope.

In an essay that appeared on December 23 in The New York Times, McCaulley tells how as research for an essay he’d write about the spirituals that are sung in Black churches at Christmastime, he looked into “Sweet Little Jesus Boy.” He says that the spiritual “was, in my childhood imagination, a connection to the faith of my ancestors, a song composed in the hush harbors where enslaved people gathered clandestinely to celebrate the birth of our savior.”

But when he looked into the background of the song, “I was startled to discover that ‘Sweet Little Jesus Boy’ was written not by an African American during slavery but by a white man named Robert MacGimsey in 1934.”

More: “Rather than working on a plantation, MacGimsey grew up on one.”

McCaulley was to discover that MacGimsey, who was to buy a plantation and, “like his father before him, he hired Black people to pick cotton,” did undertake an effort to record spirituals that his workers sang, “spirituals he probably feared would be lost to history.”

McCaulley: “I am glad we have the recordings of these spirituals that we might not otherwise, but I cannot help but be bothered by another account of a white man benefitting from the musical genius of the Black community.”

But there is another point to McCaulley’s essay that goes beyond another instance of cultural appropriation.

It is the question of “Sweet Little Jesus Boy” and how McCaulley thinks about it, feels about it, now that he knows who wrote it and who the man was.

McCaulley writes that when he is in his family’s Black Baptist church on the south side of Chicago on Christmas morning, if the song comes up, “I will sing it with gusto.”

McCaulley posits, “MacGimsey could have never written it had he not encountered formerly enslaved believers. Whatever genius that the song contains, it comes from them. We have made it ours by the singing of it.”

McCaulley is certainly a big-hearted man for whom I have the utmost admiration.

But this situation and discovery raises the question about other songs that we listen to that have emotional resonance for us. Songs of love. Songs of loss. Songs of joy. Songs that speak to us in ways that seem as though the songwriters know exactly how we feel.

Certainly the music that has meaning for us taps into something in our souls, not in a conventional religious sense, but in a deep emotional sense. We listen and we think and feel: Yes. It could be a sad song, plumbing the depths of anguish and loss. It could be a personal anthem that we use to help us face things that present us with challenges, both small and immense.

Back in the early days of rock, at 1619 Broadway in New York, there was something of a factory, but a factory that churned out songs. Workers were, almost like in a plant turning out Camrys, in teams, as in Neil Sedaka and Howie Greenfield, Gerry Goffin and Carole King, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich, and Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman.

Out of the Brill Building came songs including:

  • “Up on the Roof”
  • “Natural Woman”
  • “He’s a Rebel”
  • “Stand By Me”
  • “Jailhouse Rock”
  • “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling”
  • “Walk On By”
  • “We Gotta Get Out of This Place”

While we may listen to the Righteous Brothers or the Animals and think and feel that the song understands us, is it somehow problematic that someone churned out the music because that was their job? Don’t we, perhaps unknowingly, have a sense of the Romantic in us that believes there is inspiration, not economics, behind it?

The Brill Building was a concentrated collection of remarkable song writers, heirs to those who had toiled in New York in several buildings in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, an area known as Tin Pan Alley, on West 28th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues.

Just a few of the songwriters associated with Tin Pan Alley are:

  • Irving Berlin
  • Sammy Cahn
  • Hoagy Carmichael
  • George M. Cohan
  • George and Ira Gershwin
  • Oscar Hammerstein II
  • Lorenz Hart
  • Cole Porter
  • Richard Rodgers

Twentieth-century music wouldn’t be the same without them.

But consider: What if some of these people, those at Brill or from the Alley, were absolute shits? What if you learned that upon arriving at home one or more of them would kick their dog—and that was their better behavior?  Would that affect the way you hear the music?

In the mid-20th century there was a literary movement named “New Criticism,” which had it that a work of literature was a thing onto itself, complete in itself. The biography of the creator was irrelevant to the work. So to subscribe to that approach, the authors’ extraneous behavior wouldn’t matter, or somehow there would be some way of transcending that.

Not many of us, I think, can do that.

But there is something that is potentially even more troubling.

According to an article in MusicBusiness Worldwide:

“Tencent Music Entertainment (TME) says that it has created and released over 1,000 tracks containing vocals created by AI tech that mimics the human voice.

“And get this: one of these tracks has already surpassed 100 million streams.”

What’s more, TME has created the Lingyin Engine that can “quickly and vividly replicate singers’ voices to produce original songs of any style and language” and said singers can be dead.

Presumably there are some listeners to this music for whom there is a deep connection.

There are two things to consider:

  1. The song is written by a human and performed by an Irodu*
  2. The song is completely synthetic

How would discovering that make you feel?


*While Amazon has made a miniseries out of William Gibson’s The Peripheral, arguably his earlier novel with that title might have made a more compelling show.

Photo of Brill Building by Americasroof at English Wikipedia.

One thought on “What Do We Hear?”

  1. Very interesting, especially that last bit. We live in a weird world!

    I vaccilate between two extremes. Sometimes I despair that music will really become just a simulacrum of itself and we will basically lose that something that makes music special. In more optimistic moments, I think that perhaps AI is just another way of making music. Really, if a song connects with you, does it really matter how it came about? :) In a sense, the meaning of music is what we project on to it..there is arguably NO other meaning.

    And I suppose I do believe that there will ALWAYS be basements where people will be bashing something out on guitar or rapping or remixing things live or all of these and more at once and you will be able to go see them in the full knowledge that these are not AI creations:)

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