For years I had heard the name Josephine Baker. With that name came a smattering of information about a Black American woman who created a sensation as an exotic dancer in Paris in the 1920’s. Two years ago, as I was trying to educate myself more about Black history in order to be a more effective ally in the battle for racial justice, I came across her name again, but this time I read up on her and was astonished by what I learned.
Did you know that Josephine Baker was the most famous entertainer in France, perhaps in Europe, during the 1930’s? Or that she used that fame and her tours to gather information for the French Resistance During World War II, or that she was awarded the Croix de Guerre by the French military and was inducted into the French Legion of Honor for her service? Or that she attempted to show that people of different backgrounds and from different areas of the world could learn to live together peacefully by adopting 13 children from all over the world? How about the fact that she was the only woman invited to speak at the March on Washington in 1963? Or that after Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination in 1968, his widow, Coretta Scott King, asked Baker to become the unofficial leader of the Civil Rights Movement? (After giving it a lot of thought, Baker declined, saying that her children were too young to lose their mother.) All this, and more, from a woman born in poverty in St. Louis in 1906, who was first married at 13, joined the chorus of the first black musical on Broadway, Eubie Blake’s and Nobel Sissle’s Shuffle Along at age 15 and was dancing in Paris at 19. Ms. Baker not only danced (introducing the Charleston to Paris in the mid-1920’s), she sang, was featured in French movies and made a triumphant return to the international stage in her 60’s performing at such venues as the London Palladium and Carnegie Hall to large audiences and rave reviews. Josephine Baker was truly an amazing woman who was not only artistically gifted, but who also used her fame to try to make the world a better and more just place.
I was so impressed with her that I wrote a piece for solo flute in 2020 and called it Black Venus (one of Baker’s many nicknames). In the piece I do my best to evoke some of the sounds of the Jazz Age in Paris, as well as some of the feel of songs Baker would have heard growing up in St. Louis on the Mississippi River. Here is a performance by Montpelier flutist Hilary Goldblatt:
Written by Erik Nielsen.
Monteverdi Music School has been a center for music lessons and music activity in Central Vermont for 26 years, and now establishing its outreach to the online community!