The Book Cooks
Excerpts from
Duke Ellington’s America

by Harvey G. Cohen
(University of Chicago Press; Chicago)

From Chapter 11: My People

Ellington’s newfound willingness to engage in the issues and images of the modern civil rights movement, in his own fashion, was best illustrated in My People, a show he designed and performed in Chicago during the summer of 1963 for the Century of Negro Progress exhibition, the only national celebration of the centenary of President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Twenty-one major American corporations, from AT&T to Pepsi- Cola, sponsored exhibitions that traced black history from Africa to modern America, a subject Ellington had delved into oft en. In the July press conference announcing the show, he called it a “swinging thing about my people,” but My People clearly represented more than that simple description. One clue he provided that day, ignored by those who later criticized the work, was that he meant the work to appeal to children, “mainly Negro, who have not been taught Negro history,” as well as adults. Up to nine thousand spectators, including thousands of children, saw the show daily for six weeks. It was Ellington’s chance to address black children, as he had been addressed in historical pageants a half century before in Washington, D.C. Ellington thoroughly enjoyed himself during the production, and veteran Ellington vocalist Joya Sherrill recalled that she had never seen him more excited and that “he felt he was making a racial contribution.” A year later, he told Carter Harman that “I enjoyed this as a challenge, because I was the lyricist, the composer, the orchestrator, I directed it, I produced it, I lit the show, I did everything, and it was just a ball.” As Ellington’s son pointed out, Ellington even helped paint the sets, perhaps reliving the interest in painting that earned him a scholarship as a young man to the Pratt Institute, which he never fulfilled.

In interviews, Ellington downplayed the “social significance” content of the show. “I’ve only got about one minute of social protest written into the script because while this aspect warrants notice, it unfairly tends to overshadow the continuing contributions of the Negro to American life,” he told Variety, underlining his lifelong efforts to stress accomplishment over complaint. “My People is definitely not political. It has social significance, but the emphasis will be on entertainment.” This was true, but its focus on diverse areas of nonpolitical black achievement gave the show a subtle political message in the weeks before the March on Washington. In the civil rights era, speaking about black history was inherently political. Ellington used such methods twenty years before in Black, Brown and Beige to make a strong point about the black contribution to America, and now an entire exhibition was built around that idea. To stress that point even further, Ellington used parts of the earlier Black, Brown and Beige in My People, specifically the spiritual, work song, and blues themes. “My People depicts the Negro in every walk of American life,” noted the Chicago Defender. “It specifically states that there are Negro doctors, lawyers, businessmen, nurses, teachers, telephone operators, policemen, and housewives, but for the most part, My People points out that the past 100 years has been a century of swinging the blues.”

Social significance existed in the show in many forms, including that of an Ellington parable that encouraged listeners to examine themselves in areas beyond color and cautioned about giving in to hostility:

 [My People was] based on the cultural contribution of the Negro, the foundation was built on the sweat, blood of the Negro. We went on for an hour and twenty minutes and never mentioned the word “color” . . . On the subject of color, we had a little girl tell the story of the green people and the purple people . . . who fought and fought till they both won and lived in a state of monotony since they both felt they had won an empty victory. So they both fought until they both lost. They were all dead, and there was blood everywhere, no purple blood, no green blood, it was all red. After the little girl finished telling her story, we had Joya Sherrill come out and say, “We finally got on to the subject and we’re sorry. We tried to hold it back as long as we could so we’re going to discuss color now.” And then we had her sing [the Ellington song] “What color is virtue, what color is love” . . . We send them out of the hall, the theater, on our closing number “What Color is Love, What Color Is Virtue?” which is a big question. If you answer the question, it says everything you want to say.

In the title monologue of the show, Ellington took on the persona of a “soap box speaker” as he listed black values and achievements in an impassioned preacher’s cadence. Ellington’s script for My People directed him to speak “loud . . . driving home every point with tremendous force”:

My people—singing—dancing—praying—thinking—about freedom. Working—building America into the most powerful nation in the world. Cotton—sugar—indigo—iron—coal—peanuts—steel—the railroad—you name it. The foundation of the United States rests on the sweat of my people. And in addition to working and sweating, don’t forget that my people fought and died in every war.

My People also included the most outwardly political statement and song of Ellington’s life, “King Fit [Fought] the Battle of Alabam,” his personal interpretation of the April 1963 confrontation between police forces and thousands of black demonstrators trying to desegregate the department stores of Birmingham, Alabama, led by Dr. King. Eugene “Bull” Connor, the city’s commissioner of public safety, used police dogs, high pressure hoses, and electric cattle prods to disperse the crowds, which mostly consisted of young black people and children. The sight was captured on national television and changed many Americans’ minds about the need for equal rights. It obviously lit a fire under Ellington. In May 1963, he let loose some harsher comments than usual, telling a journalist that racial troubles such as Birmingham “must lose a million friends and get a million enemies every day for the United States . . . It’s too bad that civilization doesn’t bring with it some wisdom.” He further noted that “I had my fights 20 years ago” in various Southern states “without any newspapermen around.” Ellington sang “King Fit the Battle of Alabam” himself at jazz festivals in the summer of 1963, something he had never done before (Jazz magazine proclaimed that “it should be recorded and played in Congress at regular intervals during the civil rights debates”). A choir performed it during My People:

King fit the battle of Alabam—Birmingham . . .
And the bull got nasty—ghastly—nasty
Bull turned the hoses on the church people . . .
And the water came splashing—dashing—crashing
Freedom rider—ride
Freedom rider—go to town
Y’all and us—gonna get on the bus
Y’all aboard—sit down, sit tight, you’re right . . .

Little babies fit the battle of police dogs—mongrel police . . .
And the dogs came growling—howling—growling . . .

And when the dog saw the baby wasn’t afraid
He turned to his Uncle Bull and said
That baby acts like he don’t give a damn
Are you sure we’re still in Alabam?

In the show, the “King Fit the Battle” sequence finished with a “parade” of placards celebrating black Americans who had achieved, who had a made a difference in the world, each one recited and displayed to the audience: Dr. King, George Washington Carver, Dr. Ralph Bunche, Dr. Charles Drew, Bill Robinson, Booker T. Washington, Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Frederick Douglass, Thurgood Marshall, and more. Once again, Ellington seemed to reference The Star of Ethiopia, W. E. B. DuBois’ staged pageant of black history, which Ellington saw as a teenager, and My People also featured banners proclaiming the “gifts” African Americans had presented the world.

King and Ellington met for the first time during the Chicago exposition. It was a joyous meeting. “Martin is sitting in his limousine and he looks up and he sees Edward [Ellington] and jumps out of the car, and he runs over to him and they embrace like they were old friends,” recalled Marian Logan, a civil rights activist and the wife of Dr. Arthur Logan. Ellington recalled the way that King commanded respect as he traveled. “In order for him to say hello to me, he had to have his chauffeur stop this long Cadillac. An aide got out and opened the door, and two motor policemen in front and two more behind had to stop so that he could shake hands with me,” Ellington recalled later. “This is the way the man lives and travels who represents the oppressed race.” Ellington suggested to King that they go together to where Strayhorn was rehearsing My People. Strayhorn had met King before as a result of his close friendship with Lena Horne, and he would in a few days be a member of “the inner circle” around King at the March on Washington. When Ellington and King arrived, Ellington asked the company to perform the song he had written about King. “Martin was very moved,” Logan reported years later. “Very impressed—very proud . . . tears came down and Edward was delighted.” Later that day, at the exposition, King awarded Ellington a plaque celebrating “his contribution to American society through music. Ellington, in turn, gave him a manuscript of a song from . . . My People.” One suspects the manuscript was “King Fit the Battle of Alabam.”

But, as Ellington repeated many times to the media, politics and “social” comment were not the main themes of My People, though they were more present than he admitted. “There is one theme that runs through the production: love,” Down Beat accurately reported. Love is viewed from many angles in My People. The theme is constant in the extensive spiritual section. “Lord, dear Lord, above, God Almighty God of love,” the section began. “Please look down and see my people through.” Love was explored in the ballet performed by Alvin Ailey’s dance company during the “Work Song” (from Black, Brown and Beige), which depicted a young and passionate couple picking petals off a flower. The stormy and jealous sides of love were explored in the blues sections of My People. Ellington’s new blues songs were simplistic and sophomoric, but Down Beat reported that they were “humorous” on stage. Most importantly, love was key in Ellington’s achingly beautiful new song “My Mother, My Father (Heritage),” a tribute to the loving culture in which he was raised. Ellington sympathetically portrayed the civil rights movement in My People, but with this song he also stressed the importance of family tradition and good character in facing not only the struggles of life, but also in being able to appreciate and hand down the best things in life. From what is known of Ellington’s early life and how he felt about it, it can be safely surmised that “My Mother, My Father” represented one of Ellington’s most personal songs. Perry Watkins, who worked on the earlier Beggars Holiday as well as My People, recalled that Ellington had tears in his eyes when he first described the song to him:

My mother—the greatest—and the prettiest
My father—just handsome—but the wittiest
My granddaddy natural born proud
Grandma—so gentle—so fine
The men before them worked hard and sang loud
About the beautiful women in this family of mine
Our homestead—the warmest—hospitality
In me you see the least of the family tree personality
I was raised in the palm of the hand
By the very best people in this land
From sun to sun
Their hearts beat as one
My mother—my father—and love

“That’s everybody’s song,” Ellington told a Canadian TV host a year later.
“Everybody feels the same way.”

My People and the Century of Negro Progress exhibition as a whole did not do as well as hoped. Early reports forecast eight hundred thousand attendees over eighteen days, but only one hundred thousand went through the turnstiles. Still, that number was more than usually saw Ellington live during a comparable period of time, and the exhibition provided valuable positive publicity for black Americans during a time of intense civil rights furor. Later observers, such as Stuart Nicholson and Klaus Stratemann, have argued that My People did not attract large audiences because it was “out of tune” with the prevailing aggressive mood among blacks concerning the reform of racial inequalities. Yet, except for a review of the exhibition as a whole in Variety, none of the dozens of media reviews or features concerning the show share this sentiment. My People received uniformly positive notices. Mercer Ellington instead blamed disappointing audience numbers on the lack of publicity and support for the exhibition in Chicago.

With My People, Ellington made an important statement of long-term significance for him and his career. He exhibited for a new generation, as he had in previous decades, a strong and multifaceted commitment to the issues of the black struggle and black history. From this point forward, he received no serious challenge from the black press or any other media representatives concerning his personal and political commitment to “his people” and their desire to overturn American discrimination. In May 1964, Ellington was photographed showing support for Senator Hubert H. Humphrey (D-MN) for his efforts to pass the Civil Rights bill despite the “verbal ‘stall-in’ staged by Dixiecrats.”

Further signaling his changed image in the black community, two separate Pittsburgh Courier editorials from the same month revisited Ellington’s 1951 statement of “we ain’t ready yet.” They did not criticize it, they found it prescient. The most extensive comment came from columnist P. L. Prattis, one of the leading critics during the 1951 controversy:

The time was, not too long ago, that any Negro who turned to his own people and complained “we ain’t ready yet,” would have been condemned as an “Uncle Tom.” Such a Negro would have been deemed to have no pride in his own people. He would have been regarded as “white folks” colored man.

Duke Ellington let some such thought emanate from his lips some years back, in St. Louis. Negroes forgot all about the Duke’s genius and what it had meant in raising them in the esteem of others. They jumped down the Duke’s throat. What right did he have to express [himself] on social matters, anyhow? He was only a musician.

Well, no one gets conked any longer when he says we ain’t ready yet. The long lines of unemployed Negroes prove the fact . . . Were we ready for integration? Senator Richard Russell, Georgia, says no. You don’t want to take his word for it, but you really don’t know how to argue back. The best answer is that some of us were, and some of us were not.

A week before the opening of My People, a columnist in the St. Louis Argus, another black newspaper, agreed: “It seems that ever since Duke Ellington uttered that infamous remark about us not being ready . . . all of us at one time or another have echoed the remark.” Even Jackie Robinson, the baseball star and business executive, lectured in 1964 to the NAACP in Florida on the subject of “Is the Negro Ready [for Integration]?” He spoke, accurately as it turned out, about how the fight for equality would not be over when new laws were passed and that African Americans still had to be prepared to agitate for their rights Now that the end of Jim Crow and segregation were in sight from a legislative standpoint, black leaders and writers were wondering how African Americans would handle their (hopefully) improved status.

But Ellington’s embrace of King and increased involvement in speaking out on civil rights issues did not mean that he completely turned his back on his earlier viewpoints. Mercer recalled that his father viewed Dr. King as his “main man . . . He felt that whatever Martin represented, was something worthwhile going after. He adored Martin. He felt he was one of the few real people who involved themselves in what matters count.” Yet, in a private 1964 interview with Carter Harman, Ellington expressed a displeasure with the March on Washington based largely on the ideas he had expressed during the 1951 “we ain’t ready” controversy. “You got 20 million Negroes, every Negro give one day’s pay, how much money you got?” asked Ellington. “$100 million,” replied Harman. Ellington continued:

Thank you. Then you’re going somewhere. All this bullshit. They had the biggest parade in the world, and all these people, everybody who went to Washington that day, instead of spending 50 or 100 dollars, all they had to do was give $5. They’d have a million dollars. It’s just very simple, simple arithmetic. Everybody gets involved in all this high-powered bullshit . . . They get their pictures in the papers and all that. It’s great. They get on television. But fuck it, the cause stands still . . . I told them once, I told them a helluva long time ago—they told me I didn’t know what I was doing and I should go play my music . . . I told them in 1951. How much would $100 million be worth today? . . . It pays all your expenses and you still got your principal. The only people who did good out of the goddamn parade was the people who owned businesses in Washington, the hotels and all that, they had a fucking ball, put all the fucking money in their pockets. To begin with, let’s take, for instance, the propaganda. It was . . . the biggest demonstration in the world, but anything they do aft er that is anti-climactic, it’s too big to follow. What else can they do? How can you do your best number and follow it? This is simple dramatics, this is a kind of thing you think of in a high school play. You don’t have to be a mastermind to figure that out.

“I’ll give up the band and direct the whole fucking thing [civil rights movement],” Ellington told Harman aft er his monologue. “Passive resistance is wonderful, if you own the ground you’re resisting on, like India and Gandhi,” he further argued. “This [in the United States] is something else . . . can’t do anything without money.”  Ellington’s point of view deserves serious consideration. Long-requested and long-needed laws were passed in the mid-1960s, mainly due to the bravery and political skill of many civil rights organizations and the risks street protesters assumed, but financial and personal security and equality were still far from the reach of most black Americans during the rest of Ellington’s lifetime and beyond. Ellington may have represented a point of view from an earlier time, but it had relevance to the civil rights era.

© 2010 The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Duke Ellington's America - University of Chicago Press

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