The Significance of Hiawatha

It is hard to consider Coleridge-Taylor’s masterwork The Song of Hiawatha, the first part of which LMP will be performing in October, without reference to the spectacular performances that were for many years an annual London ritual. Such performances, with their clear overtones of cultural appropriation and the doctrine of the “noble savage”, would be regarded as wildly inappropriate now. But were they what Coleridge-Taylor himself had intended? How did he see the character of Hiawatha? And how should we view his work today?

Initially produced in 1924, (12 years after Coleridge-Taylor’s death), by the impresario T.C. Fairbairn and the Royal Choral Society, Hiawatha was staged in the vast setting of the Royal Albert Hall with scenery, backdrops and costumes. The composer’s daughter Avril took part on at least one occasion, singing the part of Minnehaha, while her brother (also named Hiawatha) conducted the ballet sections of the performance. In that first year six performances were given, and these proved so successful that the event was repeated every year after until 1939 (the only exception being 1926). From 1925 onwards, the role of the Medicine Man in the third part (Hiawatha’s Departure) was played by a Mohawk Chief.

Where it all began

Though Fairbairn’s productions began in the 1920s, the story of Hiawatha goes back much further to Longfellow’s original poem The Song of Hiawatha which was published in 1855.

Longfellow drew on material collected by American geographer, geologist, and ethnologist Henry Schoolcraft, who, though a pioneer as an ethnologist, was severely inaccurate by modern standards; among his errors seems to have been a conflation of two historical characters from different Native American tribes – the Iroquois chief Hiawatha and an Ojibwe folk hero named Manabozho (Schoolcraft’s wife was of Ojibwe descent). Longfellow went further, making his titular hero the centre of stories that had originally been about other characters, and inventing new stories entirely; the whole of the relationship between Hiawatha and Minnehaha (on which the Wedding Feast is based) is Longfellow’s own, and totally untrue to known Native American familial practice. In addition, in place of the resourcefulness that characterises the original characters, Longfellow’s Hiawatha becomes an elegiac, renunciatory figure, the archetypal noble savage, who willingly yields his primacy among his people to the incoming “pale-faces” and their religion. This was far from an arbitrary decision by the poet: Longfellow had a vision of creating an epic that would link his people – white Americans – to the land they were now claiming as their own, and therefore needed to portray Native Americans as a relic of the past, a dying culture into whose place white settlers could rightfully move. Having given his blessing to colonialism Hiawatha thus departs into the sunset, into legend and the past – where white America would perhaps have preferred its aboriginal forerunners to have remained.

If one were seeking to write a Hiawatha epic now, it would not be acceptable to do what Longfellow did. Nevertheless, by the standards of the time it was a relatively sympathetic approach – some critics felt he had been too lenient in his treatment of Native Americans. And though it was not the first attempt by a white poet to use Native American folklore as a basis, it was far and away the most successful. As a result, it achieved two things. It brought an awareness of Native American culture to a wider audience than had experienced it before (and, paradoxically, stimulated some Native American groups to claim their cultural heritage more strongly and vocally). And it presented such culture to that wider audience as capable of epic treatment.

Samuel and Hiawatha

Longfellow’s Hiawatha, to some extent a lonely outsider among his people, is also a leader of a culture that is about to undergo seismic shock as it encounters Christian Europeans. Coleridge-Taylor was the son of a Sierra Leonean, a black man growing up in London and a musician striving to be true to his roots and yet succeed on a Eurocentric stage. He could be reasonably assured of a fair hearing in musical circles; he could also expect to be catcalled in the street. He may well have identified with the ambivalence that Hiawatha embodied.

It is noteworthy that when in 1899 Coleridge-Taylor wrote an Overture to the Hiawatha cycle, the main theme is drawn not from any Native American source but from an American negro spiritual, Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen. He had learned the melody from the performances of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, who under their charismatic leader John Frederick Loudin had travelled the globe performing Black American choral music. The struggles of Native and Black Americans alike for integrity and dignity were thus treated as similar, by a black Englishman half a world away struggling for the same.

Samuel and America

The phenomenal success of Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast in 1898 did not only establish Coleridge-Taylor as a major force in English musical life. Its effect in America was perhaps even more profound. Post-Reconstruction, Black Americans were faced both with pushback against the freedoms so hard and bitterly won, and the question of how the race should comport itself in the new world it inhabited. Opinion was divided between those who felt that Black Americans should proceed with great caution and modesty (epitomised in Booker T. Washington’s adage “cast down your bucket where you are”) and those who felt that greater progress was possible but would need to be justified by achievement. The great Black intellectual W.E.B Dubois opined memorably that “the Negro Race is going to be saved by its exceptional men” in his book The Souls of Black Folk – a book Samuel read.

Coleridge-Taylor, with Hiawatha, catapulted himself into the ranks of those exceptional men: an artist of African descent succeeding on equal terms in the heart of what was deemed then to be the greatest empire existing. Demand for him to visit America was almost immediate, and persistent. The first performance of Hiawatha took place in Boston in 1900. Other places soon followed suit. An all-Black choral society bearing Coleridge-Taylor’s name was founded in 1901 in Washington D.C, through the efforts of Mamie Hilyer, who with her husband had visited Samuel in London. She was instrumental in persuading in 1904 to travel to the United States to conduct the Hiawatha trilogy. Samuel was insistent that he would only come if the work were performed with orchestra; but there was no all-black orchestra then in existence of the requisite quality. Eventually the Marines Band, which was nominally free from colour prejudice, was engaged, and Samuel became the first Black musician to conduct white American players – another epochal achievement. One of his soloists was Harry Burleigh, the Black singer who had worked with Dvořák. During his visit he also conducted some Choral Ballads, specially written for the purpose. Their texts were drawn from a small volume called Poems on Slavery, written in 1842 and published in defiance of backlash. The poet was, again, Longfellow. At the end of Coleridge-Taylor’s visit the Washington choir presented him with a silver cup, engraved with Longfellow’s words from the conclusion of Hiawatha’s Departure:

It is well, for us, O brother

That you come so far to see us.

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was to visit the United States twice more. He spent the rest of his short life increasingly committed to proclaiming his African heritage through the Western European music he wrote. In this he was a role model for Black American composers such as William Grant Still and Florence Price. But he would not have had so profound an impact had he not written in the first place a work that enraptured audiences wherever it was heard.

©2022 Martin Smith