"A WEAPON IN THE SERVICE OF BLACK FREEDOM": VERY SCARCE FIRST EDITION OF LAWRENCE GELLERT'S NEGRO SONGS OF PROTEST, 1936, FEATURING THE MUSIC AND LYRICS OF 24 SONGS, PRAISED BY LANGSTON HUGHES AS A WORK OF "INESTIMABLE VALUE"
GELLERT, Lawrence. Negro Songs of Protest. Collected by Lawrence Gellert. New York: American Music League, 1936. Octavo (7 by 10-1/2 inches), original brown flocked paper boards, staple-bound as issued; pp. 47. $1600.
First edition of Gellert's exceptional collection of 24 "striking compositions, verses of caustic irony… represented an alternate stream of Black musical practice," with bold title-page illustration by his brother, renowned artist and muralist Hugo Gellert, a handsome copy in original flocked wrappers.
On publication, critics declared Negro Songs of Protest "should claim and hold the attention of everybody in the world who is at all interested in how the world is getting on" (Opportunity, August 1936). Langston Hughes, in a planned foreword that was never published, called this a much-needed work "of inestimable value." It shows "that not all Negroes are shouting spirituals, cheering endowed football teams, dancing to the blues… some of them are tired of being poor, being picturesque and being hungry. Terribly and bitterly tired" (Garabedian, Sound History). Negro Songs contains 24 transcriptions of the music and "lyrics of Black discontent and rebellion rarely encountered by white readership. These were, among the striking compositions, verses of caustic irony and warning… and militant worldly defiance… Never meant for white listeners, it represented an alternate stream of Black musical practice… a level of intellectual and social consciousness… that exposed the fundamental conceit of white racism" (Garabedian, Folk-Song Revival,179-84).
The son of Hungarian-Jewish immigrants, Gellert would assert: "'I am not a folklorist… I wasn't interested in just music for its own sake… [but] as a weapon in the service of Black freedom'… Among the first to collect and write in the field of Black folk song, his blues documentation represents some of the earliest available material on the vernacular traditions of the genre… [and] attests to a critical overlap between African American blues and the verboten tradition of Negro Songs." Included are lyrics on "Black poverty and exploitation (Went To Atlanta, Pickin' Off De Cotton, Ah's De Man), lyrics decrying lynching and the false promise of Black Christian deliverance (Sistren an' Brethren, How Long, Brethren?)… and even open invocations to Black rebellion (Work All De Summer)" (Garabedian, Red, Whites and the Blues, 182-94). First edition, first printing: without exceedingly rare paper wrappers. Title page illustration by his brother, Hugo Gellert. Foreword by composer Wallingford Riegger. "Arranged for Voice and Piano" by composer Elie Siegmeister. Partially serialized in New Masses (1930). Not in Blockson. This copy contains a bookplate signed "Dan Bessie." While unconfirmed, this reportedly belongs to the son of blacklisted screenwriter Alvah Bessie, who fought in the Spanish Civil War as one of the Abraham Lincoln Brigades and, as one of the "Hollywood Ten," was imprisoned following a sentence of contempt by HUAC. Bookplate also with signature of "M. J. Sternberg."
Interior nearly pristine with one signature detaching but intact, faint rubbing to spine. A distinctive about-fine copy.