FLORENCE PRICE’S WASHERWOMAN SUITE, ARRANGED FOR STRING QUARTET
YESTERDAY I LEARNED that Elaine Fine, whose arrangement of the now-quite-popular Adoration for violin or viola with piano remains the finest of the many arrangements of that piece, has done a new and very beautiful arrangement of another work by Florence Price: the Thumbnail Sketches of a Day in the Life of a Washerwoman, for piano solo. It’s a short suite, but a rich and fascinating one that in some ways teaches more about Florence Price than the familiar litany of facts that suffice in most accounts of her work (I’ll come back to that point).
The work was probably written in the late 1930s (1939 or later) or early 1940s. Pioneering Price scholar Barbara Garvey Jackson published the first version in her collection Three Suites for Piano (Fayetteville: ClarNan Editions, 2016), and a new source-critical edition was published by G. Schirmer in 2020. It originally consisted of four movements, but Price wrote out a second manuscript that omitted one of these. The movements of the final version are: “Morning,” “A Gay Moment,” and “Evening Shadows”; between the first two of these there was originally a movement titled “Dreaming at the Washtub” (given as an appendix in my Schirmer edition and included in its original position in Elaine’s arrangement, with the invented title “Spinning Dreams at the Washtub”). The arrangement is for string quartet, and (as Elaine remarked in a private message) lent itself readily to that scoring, transposed up a half-step from the original keys. You can find her arrangement on the Petrucci Music Library here, along with a computer-generated rendition.
While I have you on the line, a serious shout-out goes to Professor Kevin Wayne Bumpers (Miami Dade College) for having made the first recording of the original version for piano solo (“Morning,” “A Gay Moment,” “Evening Shadows,” and Appendix A: “Dreaming at the Washtub”).
But what’s most important about this still little-known work is that it shows us a richly human and indeed humanitarian side of Florence Price that is not really visible in the oft-repeated (and deeply problematic) narrative that basically stops with her having become the first African American woman to have her music performed by a major U.S. orchestra. For as in the likewise still-obscure Three Miniature Portraits of Uncle Ned and Scenes in Tin Can Alley (here’s “Night” from that suite), the Thumbnail Sketches of a Day in the Life of a Washerwoman suite shows us Price valorizing humble, implicitly but (because of the works’ musical styles) clearly Black folk who were dehumanized in her own world just as they are in ours. The need for this labor (cleaning soiled laundry) is as old as humanity itself, and the vocation of washerwoman was not only a staple of enslavement, but also one of exceedingly few employment opportunities available to Black women. It was work that was unpleasant as well as low-paying: 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 owners – only to begin the process anew the next day, six days a week.
But in the Washerwoman suite Florence Price valorizes the lowly washerwoman. The first movement shows the dreary very early mornings; the second, a lighthearted moment in a day of hard word work; and in the third, we can hear the protagonist’s fatigue. This set of character sketches is thus significant in Price’s output, for with the Three Miniature Portraits of Uncle Ned it represents Price working to humanize a stereotypical figure, using her music to give personality, depth of character, and dignity to a class of individuals of low socioeconomic standing who were despised by the very world that relied on them and their work.
Florence Price’s decision to champion the lowly and despised washerwoman adds new dimension to our image of her as a person: and the individual we see in that richer image is a very beautiful one indeed.
Please listen, and know Florence Price.