In a past blog I wrote about William Grandstaff, an African American post-Civil War cattle rancher who was run off his land in Moab, Utah in 1881. I’ve had a pair of compositions based upon what we know of his life performed by the Moab Music Festival.
After fleeing Moab, he spent much of the remainder of his life in Glenwood Springs, Colorado. Will Grandbois, a reporter at the local paper there, the Glenwood Springs Post Independent, has just written a very informative article about Grandstaff and his place in local history:
In an effort to regain some equilibrium in the aftermath of our national election, I returned to a juicy project I’ve been working on, preparation for a concert I’m conducting with Sinfonia Salt Lake this coming May.
Originally, the program was supposed to include the music of three generations of the Mozart family: Leopold, the father; Wolfgang, of course; and Franz Xaver, the surprisingly gifted and underappreciated son whose music is hardly known but should be performed frequently.
For logistical reasons we had to change the program, including transferring from a piano soloist to a soprano, but I still wanted to do something equally innovative and with Mozart. Serendipitously (if that’s a word), at about that time, one of my colleagues mentioned that there was a contemporary of Mozart whose name he couldn’t remember, but was referred to as “the Black Mozart,” and was well-known in his day. Sounded intriguing!
After some sleuthing, I not only found out who this composer was, I found some very fine recordings of his music, which is excellent. And a lot more:
Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges (December 25, 1745 – June 10, 1799) was a champion fencer, virtuoso violinist, and conductor of the leading symphony orchestra in Paris. Born in Guadeloupe, he was the son of George Bologne de Saint-Georges, a wealthy planter, and Nanon, his African slave. During the French Revolution, Saint-Georges was colonel of the Légion St.-Georges, the first all-black regiment in Europe, fighting on the side of the Republic. Today the Chevalier de Saint-Georges is best remembered as the first classical composer of African ancestry. (Wikipedia)
In the old days, it would have taken a great deal more research to actually obtain the sheet music. However, in the new day and age, I found some of his scores in a mere trice online. Not only spectacular violin concertos and symphonies, but also the score to his finest comic opera, L’amant Anonime. The opera has an excellent overture, instrumental numbers, and soprano arias that suit the needs of the Sinfonia Salt Lake program to a T. The only problem is the score is in handwritten manuscript (whose, I don’t know, and there are a million mistakes), and there are no orchestral parts.
So my project is to make the music concert-ready, transcribing the music into legible form. Though it’s extremely tedious and time-consuming, it’s a project that I savor, not only because I’ve discovered some beautiful music totally new to me, but also because as I work on it, I gain a deeper appreciation for the miraculous contributions made to our culture and history by people of color who have surmounted impossibly formidable obstacles.
I highly recommend you read more about Saint-Georges and listen to his music, and as you do so, to reflect upon what has made the culture of our own country so uniquely rich, and what we need to do to as a people to continue to foster that.
I love Mozart. I love Shakespeare. I love Michelangelo. But do arts and literature define civilization, or is it how people treat each other? I just returned from a demonstration outside the Wells Fargo building in Salt Lake City. It was in support of the protesters at Standing Rock and against the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline.
Given the potential environmental and cultural desecration the pipeline could create alone raises valid questions as to why Wells Fargo would invest millions of dollars into that project, rather than funneling it into renewable energy. But for me an even greater issue is why law enforcement has been brutalizing peaceful, mostly Native American protesters. Why they have reportedly locked people of all ages and genders into dog kennels and have stamped numbers on their arms. Why they have used Mace, Tasers, rubber bullets, and attack dogs. Why they have done all this when an occupying force of armed, right-wing militias in Oregon was treated with kid gloves and has walked away free. Could it be that in our contemporary society, might actually does make right?
Right now, not only in this country, but around the world, it seems that the barbarity with which this continent was colonized a half millennium ago casts our ability to call ourselves “civilized” into serious question. Perhaps, at Standing Rock, if we can find it within ourselves to consider and implement those values that are truly important, that truly define civilization, maybe, maybe we will begin to turn a corner.
Outside the town of Moab, Utah, nestled between Arches National Park and Canyonlands National Park, is a lovely canyon, perpendicular to the Colorado River, that since the 1960s has officially been called Negro Bill Canyon by the federal Bureau of Land Management. Before that it was called something much worse.
Negro Bill was, in fact, a man of mixed race named William Grandstaff. A freed slave, he was probably a soldier in the Black Brigade of Cincinnati during the Civil War, after which he migrated west and set himself up in Moab in 1877 as a successful farmer, rancher and trader. Some years before, white settlers had founded the town, but after ongoing conflict with the Ute and Paiute Indian tribes, they abandoned it. When Grandstaff arrived all that was left of the settlement was a ruined fort. The canyon that eventually bore his name was ideal for herding cattle. It was a slot canyon, meaning there was only a single egress and the cattle could be easily contained. And it was the only canyon in the region that had a permanently flowing stream.
When the white settlers returned in 1881, armed skirmishes with the Native Americans quickly reignited. This time they accused Grandstaff of inciting the Indians, having sold liquor to them. More likely, they wanted his canyon. Grandstaff, in fear of his life, left his herd of cattle and headed to Colorado. He spent much of the rest of his life in and near Glenwood Springs, where he was both a respected saloon owner and a prospector. Though he died in hermit-like conditions in 1901 his death was mourned by the entire town.
In recent years there has been an ongoing effort to rename the canyon. As part of that effort I composed two vocal pieces generously commissioned the Moab Music Festival. The text is based upon the few tantalizing details of the life of Grandstaff that we know about. Happily, the push to change the canyon’s name has finally borne fruit, as reported in today’s Salt Lake Tribune.
I invite you to listen to my 2014 composition, William Grandstaff, and an interview about it on KSL-TV. With the explosive racial turmoil we’re currently experiencing in our country, it’s gratifying when there are positive steps forward, however small.
Last night at a book reading I gave at King’s English in Salt Lake City, one of the guests reminded me about a (very) short story called Snagged that she really liked, which I wrote a few years ago as part of a contest and which she asked me to reprint. The contest required that the story had to be 500 words or less and have the following components: A mounted swordfish, a jug of moonshine, a 1959 ZIL-III Soviet-made armored limousine, and a dead gyspy. Here it is:
c. 2013 All Rights Reserved
Shielding rheumy eyes from sea-reflected morning sun, Old Pavel strained to see what had snagged his line. For as long as he had fished off the long-abandoned pier he couldn’t recall the water so low. Impatient, Pavel yanked too hard and his ancient pole snapped in two.
Cursing, he traced his ruined gear to a thin cylinder gleaming just above the surface. An antenna, of all things! Dropping the butt end of his useless rod, Old Pavel hopped over rotting planks to the tobacconist’s where there existed a functioning telephone. Now that no one was a communist anymore he wasn’t so afraid to call the police.
Victor Maravich, Krinitsa’s police chief and a week from retirement, thought he had seen everything, but his shoulders sagged upon recognizing the muck-covered Soviet-era ZIL armored limousine that the crane sucked from the seabed. He had no need or desire to look inside the rusted wreckage, but to make it official he did. After, he trudged through the drowsy resort town and up the hill toward Sergei’s tree-shrouded dacha with its commanding view of the beach, hoping he would die first.
General Sergei Borshevsky awaited him at the door. Still tall and powerful, tufts of gray curls escaped his armpits and the collar of his white T-shirt. Red suspenders held up baggy, wool pants.
“Come and sit, Victor,” he said.
The table was bare but for the dusty jug of Kentucky moonshine that Castro had laughingly bestowed upon Borshevsky as a parting gift. As an emissary sent personally by Chairman Khrushchev, the general had stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Castro to stare down the trigger-happy Kennedy who threatened to blow up the world. By the time of his recent retirement, the medals pinned to Borshevsky’s chest would buckle a weaker man’s knees.
He poured two glasses.
“We started this jug in ’62 and now we empty it, together,” Borshevsky said. His mouth smiled but his eyes remained sad.
Maravich, studying the incomplete eight-foot-long fish, iridescent blue and silver, mounted over the fireplace, ignored the glass and the comment.
“I always wondered why that swordfish had no sword,” he said.
After some time a buzzing fly punctuated the silence.
Borshevsky drained his glass.
“I risked my life, my country, the whole world. And what do I find the night I return from Havana? My wife in my bed with a gypsy.”
Maravich gestured sympathetically.
“Neither of them saw me—they were copulating like dogs. I broke off the fish’s bill and skewered the pair of them, together, piled them in the limousine and drove to the pier. Lights off, in neutral. I pushed them over the edge. The sea was much deeper then. The next day I declared the pier off limits.”
“We heard rumors that Tanya absconded with someone and your limo, but we never found a trace.”
“Never listen to rumors, Victor.”
“You started them, Sergei. But…wouldn’t it have been easier to just shoot them?”
“And dishonor my pistol?”
The afternoon sun grew uncomfortably hot.
“So, what are you going to do, Victor?”
“It’s not my decision. It’s yours. As is your pistol. Good-bye, Sergei.”