• John Michael Cooper


Most of Florence Price’s piano pieces carry titles that evoke landscapes, scenes, or ideas (Placid Lake, “Moon behind a Cloud,” “Flame,” Rainbow Waltz, or of course the Fantasies nègres). But there are also two sets that are about people – and these sets both bear titles that downplay or minimize the representational claims of the pieces: Three Miniature Portraits of Uncle Ned, Thumbnail Sketches of a Day in the Life of a Washerwoman.

Titles like “Miniature Portraits” and “Thumbnail Sketches” suggest that these pieces are somehow slight – but while they are short, they are quite substantive. So why the disclamatory language?

Like most why questions, that one calls for conjecture. And as is usually the case, we’ll probably never know why for sure. But here is my guess.

In both of these instances of musical portraiture, Price deals not with a specific individual, but rather with a type or a class of people. Uncle Ned, Uncle Joe, and Uncle Tom, for example, were a stock character in minstrelsy – one who was usually in late middle-age and always happy to be obedient or servile to Whites, always happy, smiling, and endearing to Whites despite the poverty and discrimination that characterized his own life and that of those around him. (Note that the prototypical Uncle Tom in literature, from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s abolitionist novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, did not, in literature, conform to this stereotype but rather had a great deal of courage and integrity. Stage and film depictions, and literary tropes born of minstrelsy, have distorted Stowe’s Uncle Tom into the figure described above.)

(Two things: first, note that the names are always monosyllabic calling names; second, here’s a good explanation of the “Ned” (etc.) caricature).

Much the same holds true of the Black washerwoman – another stereotypical figure in U.S. Black life until the mid-twentieth century. In Price’s world, where the overwhelming majority of women were only allowed to hold service jobs for men and the overwhelming majority of Blacks were only able to work as domestic servants for Whites, Black washerwomen were figures both ubiquitous and tragic, disdained despite the essential nature of the work they did and the pride they took in doing it well. They picked up others’ soiled laundry, pumped gallons of water and used harsh lye soap to rub clothing on scrubboards, sometimes used urine to remove the more stubborn stains, hung the clothing out to dry, ironed and folded it, and then, at the end of each day, hauled it back to its various owners – only to begin the process anew the next day, six days a week. The hours were long and the pay, although notoriously low, was used either to supplement the family income or – more commonly – to support the family entirely, since northern Blacks in many areas were barred from pursuing trades by segregated trade-union policies.[1] The washerwoman personified the rule of oppression and exploitation that characterized Black life (and still does) – but when she was observed singing while doing her work Whites wrongly took this as a sign that she enjoyed her work, when in fact the singing was a way of coping with her mistreatment.

Now, White stereotypes’ suggestion that Blacks actually enjoyed slavery and discrimination (if Blacks enjoyed slavery and abject servitude to Whites, those things couldn’t be all bad, could they?) is repellent enough. But these racist stereotypes also serve a larger purpose: to dehumanize Blacks and thereby validate Whites’ (including White scientists’) belief that servitude and demeaning work for Blacks were not White evils, but just the natural order.

So how did Florence Price deal with society’s dehumanizing treatment of Blacks, especially poor Blacks?

From the absolute lack of any discussion of the Miniature Portraits of Uncle Ned or the Thumbnail Sketches of a Day in the Life of a Washerwoman anywhere in the literature on Price, you might surmise that she ignored it – that she wrote juba dances and fantasies nègres for herself and symphonies and concertos for concert-music audiences. Apparently, you might surmise, that was enough for her.

But in fact it was not enough. In fact, Florence Price worked to address poor Blacks’ dehumanization by humanizing them, musically.

Consider: the Uncle X stereotype is always the same (it's a stereotype, after all). But Price’s Miniature Portraits do something that never, ever happens to the stock-character Uncle X: they age “Ned” and give him a different character at each age. The first movement of the suite shows us the uncle “at age seventeen” – i.e., probably before he was old enough to be anybody’s uncle; the second changes the character of the same theme to show Uncle Ned “at age twenty-seven”[2], now described by Price as “pompous” rather than a jaunty and jovial youth; and the third movement changes the character of the theme yet again, now fast-forwarding past the late-middle-aged Uncle X of the stereotypes to “age seventy.” For this final movement the theme’s character is changed again, and again to something different than the stereotypes: Ned is now serene, reflective; indeed, visually his music now resembles the so-called stile antico (ancient style) of music associated with the “pure” sacred music of Palestrina and others. (See the cover photo of this post.)

In other words, Florence Price bypassed the racist stereotype entirely, instead portraying Ned as a living, breathing human being.

She does much the same with the Washerwoman suite. To be clear, the title of this suite doesn’t specify that the washerwoman is Black – but the music shows it, drawing on the gapped scales and juba repertoires that clearly evoke African American idioms and life. And here, too, Price gives us a glimpse into the dreary, but also very human, existence of a figure whose life and work conspired to make her less than human in the eyes of many. The first movement, titled “Morning,” begins slowly and darkly with harmonies redolent of Liszt’s Nuages gris, then moves through a passage where we hear morning birdsong, and finally turns to slow movement as the protagonist begins her long and difficult day. The second movement (“A Gay Moment”) is a lively juba – but it is only “a moment,” conspicuously brief. And the third movement is “Evening Shadows,” another slow and reflective piece characterized by darker harmonies – but the salient aspect of this movement, to me at least, is its constant starting-and-stopping, perhaps showing that the washerwoman is so tired that she can barely walk. And of course we know that this same cycle will repeat itself, for miserably low pay and even lower societal acknowledgment, six days a week and fifty-two weeks a year. (Price originally wrote another movement titled “Dreaming at the Washtub” for this suite but did not include it in the later manuscript. It’s included as an appendix in my edition.)

Which takes me back to where I started: why miniature portraits and thumbnail sketches?

I think those disclaimers make sense if we accept that the goal of these two little-known suites is about humanizing figures who are usually treated as cardboard cutouts of humanity, as stereotypes. These are thumbnail sketches of a day rather than a day in the life of a washerwoman because the real day is too rich and too real to be captured in these character sketches. And these are miniature portraits rather than just portraits of Ned because Ned is a real human being, too dimensional to be captured in a single short piece of music or even three movements. I think Price wants us to appreciate that these stereotypical characters are real, living and breathing human beings, possessed of human nature with its foibles and dreams, of dignity and grace.

There’s now a new edition of the Washerwoman suite out from G. Schirmer (it was first published in 2016[3]), and Uncle Ned is now also out from Schirmer. Most importantly, Antwerp-based pianist Jeanne-Minette Cilliers will release a new video of the Miniature Portraits of Uncle Ned as part of the exciting new series Songs of Comfort (#SongsofComfort) on her YouTube channel later this month. The Washerwoman Suite still awaits performance and recording . . .

Are you intrigued to see how Florence B. Price took on racial and socioeconomic stereotyping?

[1] Woodson, “The Negro Washerwoman,” 272. [2] As explained in the foreword to my edition of the Three Miniature Portraits of Uncle Ned, the pieces were originally written before 1947 and the titular uncle named Joe instead of Ned; this version was performed in 1948. At some point Price renamed the titular uncle to Ned, and at some point later on she made another copy that did not include the second movement. In the first version of the suite this moved showed the uncle “at age thirty-five.” [3] Florence Beatrice Price: Three Suites for Piano, ed. Barbara Garvey Jackson (Fayetteville, Arkansas: ClarNan, 2016).

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