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I've gotten an e-mail to this effect a couple of times now, mainly centering around the story behind the song "Amazing Grace". The basic idea is that old Negro spirituals were based on the black keys of the piano because slaves weren't permitted to touch the white keys. Amazing Grace was written by a former slaver, and the assertion is that he heard the tune from his slaves.

This sounds like total BS. First off, there's no piano out on the cotton plantation, and the slaves' quarters were very unlikely to have had one either. Second, a house slave might be trained to play piano for the enjoyment of the household, but in that case, it seems equally unlikely that the tutor would only teach the student the black keys. Lastly, the black keys, when played in sequence, form a pentatonic scale (not the only one but the easiest one), and this scale is common not only in certain African tribal forms, but in numerous European and Asian cultures.

Anyone have any proof or disproof of this thesis?

  • i would hazard that a slave wouldn't ever be taught the piano(rare eccentric owners exempt), as its considered a fine art that would be above their limited capabilities. I would also assume they wouldnt be allowed to touch the piano other then to clean it, and then probably with gloves on to not "stain" the keys. there would however most likely be at least 1 piano in the big house, of most moderate sized plantations up. – Himarm Feb 10 '15 at 19:14
  • all of these emails stem from youtube.com/watch?v=DMF_24cQqT0 , in the video he mentions that the black keys were also called the slave keys, which after looking into this, i have found 0 evidence of other then in reference to this mans claim. – Himarm Feb 10 '15 at 19:27
  • I watched the linked video @Himarm gave. It is to a singer/preacher, Wintley Phipps. In the video he gives an informal musicology lesson about the black-key pentatonic scales, but does NOT make this claim. – Oddthinking Feb 10 '15 at 23:31
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    @Oddthinking sorry i wasnt clear, he didnt claim slaves were only allowed to play black keys on the piano, he just talks about how must of the spirituals stem from just the black key pentatonic scale, in which those articles i linked below then reference the scam emails that the OP posted about. none of them actually talk about them only being able to use black keys of the piano though. – Himarm Feb 10 '15 at 23:36
  • @KeithS: This sounds awfully like someone has got the wrong end of the stick. To show that person is not you, could you please quote the emails or find some notable sources? My quick attempt found nothing. – Oddthinking Feb 10 '15 at 23:36
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According to As Thousands Cheer: The Life of Irving Berlin: (with my censoring)

Like many self-taught musicians, he hit only the black keys, which were easier for his untrained hands to control. He called them "n****r keys," and the pianos he used, "n****r pianos," Both terms were standard Tin Pan Alley jargon. His use of these expressions, repugnant though they were, suggested his unconscious identification with untrained and intuitive black musicians. From N****r Mike's to n****r keys, Berlin cast his lot with black music.

Also see this video of Irving Berlin playing on only the black keys

So it seems that a concept of just playing the black keys did exist. The reference is referring to the 1910 time frame. But it was not by force that black keys were played.

There is similar information in a 1996 article in CommonQuest: The Magazine of Black- Jewish Relations:

some doubted he was altogether responsible for his musical ideas. A rumor persisted throughout the 1910s that a "little n****r boy" wrote his songs for him; others credited black ragtime pianist Lukie Johnson, a performer at N****r Mike's. Although Johnson disavowed authorship, the rumors were not altogether unfounded. Berlin had learned ragtime from Johnson, then retooled it for mainstream consumption. All his life Berlin composed solely on the black keys of the piano, or, as he called them, the "n****r keys." His defense of this musically illiterate method was telling: The "n****r keys are right there under your fingers." "N****r" music was somehow already his own. As a boy staying at the Bowery flophouses, Izzy had occasionally signed himself "Cooney." Ragtime is a musical hybrid in which a classic Euro-American bass is mocked and elaborated by an African-American syncopating treble; its very form, in other words, is a microcosm and a source of American pop art— the "low" sensibility parodying and reinventing the "high." Developing in the late nineteenth century among blacks in the cities of the Midwest and Southwest, ragtime served as an accompaniment to various black dances, many of which bore striking resemblances to their African prototypes...

(The diatonic scale can be heard by playing a C-scale on the piano; one uses all the white keys. The pentatonic scale, in contrast, involves playing only the five black keys of the C- scale). When Berlin expressed his fondness for the "n****r keys" he was not only marking an obvious affinity of color — black keys, black music — but showing his familiarity with African- American music.

Also, the 1840 The Musical World, Volume 13

The black keys of the pianoforte give the scale then in use, as a proof of which, many of the ancient Irish airs, such as " The rose-tree in full bearing," and several others, may be played by using only the black keys of the pianoforte.

So just playing the black keys was known, but was unrelated to slaves being forced to play that way.

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For one thing, "Amazing Grace" isn't an old Negro spiritual.
Per Wikipedia, the words were written by a British sailor (involved in the slave trade) who later became a clergyman.
He only wrote the words: they were set to a number of tunes, with the current one not used until about half a century after its composition.
It in turn was likely derived from old British melodies. (It's not an uncommon practice for hymns to steal tunes from secular/traditional music: perhaps the best known example is Greensleeves/What Child Is This?)

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    This does not really address the fact of whether slaves were allowed to only touch black keys. – nico Feb 10 '15 at 22:45
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    Also, Wikipedia isn't a terribly reliable source. Better to use it as a starting point to follow up sources than as an arbiter. – Oddthinking Feb 10 '15 at 23:34
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    @nico: But as the OP states the claim, it is "mainly centering around the story behind the song 'Amazing Grace'". But since neither the words nor the music were composed by slaves, that alone is enough to demonstrate that the claim is false. And as for whether Wikipedia is a reliable source... Well, it's all that's needed for this, and all that it's worth. – jamesqf Feb 11 '15 at 6:12
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    Sure but the fact that amazing grace is not a negro spiritual does not prove or disprove anything about slaves being allowed to play black keys. Granted, the claim itself is fallacious in this sense. – nico Feb 11 '15 at 8:03
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    @jamesqf you could find a reference (book, journal article etc.) showing a slave playing piano. I am not saying this is an easy task but that -as it stands- this does not answer the question. – nico Feb 11 '15 at 23:37

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