Pianist Jeni Slotchiver reflects on our musical heritage

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Jeni Slotchiver — American Heritage (ZOHO)

“Many people thought that this was the right time to do this,” said pianist Jeni Slotchiver on her new album, American Heritage. “I did it before, but the music was relevant then as it is now. My African American students had long wanted me to record this music. I was concerned with how they are going to take me recording this music. My students said, ‘Just do it. You play it and just record it.’”

Slotchiver is a teacher who was born in a small town in South Carolina. She’s built a career out of musical exploration and in 2018 she recorded American Heritage but it was delayed due to the pandemic. It pays homage primarily to African American composers of the 19th and early 20th century whose works laid the foundations of later forms of music such as jazz, blues and R&B.

How does this music reflect everything from the Civil War to the civil rights movement?

“I had a group of three pieces, and I called them ‘my holy water to Trinity.’ The pieces were ‘Deep River,’ ‘Troubled Water’ and ‘Down by the Riverside.’

“‘Deep River,’ to me, is a story of suffering. ‘Troubled Water’ has veiled references to streambeds, and how to avoid the blood hands for enslaved people who might be escaping the deep river. Crossing the river Jordan could mean escaping, getting out of their misery and pain, but can also be going to heaven and leaving all that suffering. ‘Down by the Riverside’ existed before the Civil War, but it wasn't published until 1918. That piece became synonymous with freedom in the civil rights movement.

“Besides our rich history of indigenous music from the North American Indians, this is our greatest body of American folkloric music. I really hadn't thought of it as that until I learned that ‘Shenandoah’ and ‘Swanee River,’ what most people think ‘Camptown Races’ is, were not American folk songs, but originated as shanty songs.

“From 1820 to 1860 when the clipper ships left Baltimore, they had what they call ‘checkered’ crews. They were black and white crews. That's where the white sailors and dock workers learned these songs. It just fascinated me. Then I realized everything on the album, except for ‘Union,’ came here or transformed itself in some way or another from enslaved people.

“I recorded this in 2018 and then the pandemic happened. I maintained a very strong emotional connection to this music, and it's never changed. I've never gotten tired of any of these pieces.”

To hear the rest of my conversation, click on the extended interview above, or download the extended podcast on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts.

Resources

Jeni Slotchiver — American Heritage (Amazon)

Jeni Slotchiver (Official site)

290 episodes