Traditional Creole Songs and the work Camille Nickerson, 1888-1982

In the same way that white Newcomb students were being taught European traditions, so too were African American and Creoles of Color being taught. One of the most successful programs was that of William J. Nickerson, at Nickerson School for Music. His most well-known students included Jelly Roll Morton, Manuel Manetta, and Emma Barrett. It is his daughter, however, Camille Lucie Nickerson (1888-1982), who shows us more about the transmission of music in written and recorded forms of archival documents, and ultimately the preservation of music in archives.

Camille Nickerson began early as an accomplished performer. At age nine, she became pianist for the Nickerson Ladies Orchestra. Work around the city in this nine-piece ensemble group gave her an interest not only in classical music but also in the songs she heard in French-speaking homes and the cries of street vendors. She graduated in 1916 from Oberlin Conservatory. Returning home, she would, in 1917, be among an elite group of the city’s musicians to found the B-Sharp Club. This was a female-dominated group devoted to the study and rendition of music in many forms, but especially traditional and original African American music. She left New Orleans to teach at Howard University where she would remain for almost forty years.

In terms of her archival contribution, one turns to definitions and logistics of transmission, preservation, and access. Transmission is considered, from diplomatics (an elderly scholarly discipline for the analysis of documents), as the transfer of a record from one party to another. Transmission in terms of memory studies concerns the giving of a memory from one form to another, from one person to another. Nickerson gave such gifts of memory through recording songs.

Camille Nickerson began this transmission work during her time at Oberlin where she returned in the 1930s to write her Master’s thesis on “Afro-Creole Music of Louisiana.” As she would later recall in an interview, she wanted to make Creole music a part of the American canon, while also showing how it brought different sensibilities:

These people were under the domination of French and Spanish colonists. They had their particular influence. The themes were different from the spirituals. They never seemed to sing sad songs; most were love songs or lullabies, some satire. The satire was the result of French and African influence. The language, of course, was something that they had to find and learn from the French master. They eliminated whatever was difficult; they turned and twisted the pronouns and just made a language all their own, which is considered more euphonious than the French language. This is one instance when the master had to make the adjustment. If he was going to have any success he had to get his thoughts known to the slaves, so he developed the patois; he made the adjustment. (McGinty interview)

In archival theory and practice, language always is a consideration. In addition, both her field methods and her recorded work show how technology governs what enters an archives and in what form. Again in the interview about her Afro-Creole music project, she recalled how she first recorded the songs by hand:

I had to, at first, notate by hand; I didn’t have a machine. And this was really something because I’d get a prospect all ready to sing, and she’d start off and I’d start writing; and then I’d say, “Wait a minute,” and then she’d start again and change it. So you see what I went through. The next year Miss Childers bought a phonograph machine, and I thought everything was going to be so perfect. But sometimes I’d have a prospect all ready, and the machine wouldn’t work. There were lots of difficulties. (McGinty interview)

Some of the songs she would later perform as “The Louisiana Lady” in Europe and across the U.S. Today, again we have the benefits of technology, this time extending some of the legacies of her archival efforts. For example, from the websites below you can hear some of the songs she first wrote down performed by other singers, such as Felicia Weathers and Adelaide Van Wey.

Nickerson’s papers are primarily held by Howard University’s Moorland-Spingarn Research Center. In local archival collections, however, one can still learn more about Nickerson. See for example, the Amistad Research Center for personal papers Camille Nickerson’s acquaintances (such as opera singer Camilla Williams and music teacher Lucile Hutton); photographs, or other items about Nickerson as an interpreter of Creole songs; and papers of several concert artists who included Nickerson’s arrangements on their programs.

In addition, the Amistad houses the archival records of the B-Sharp Music Club. The group initially performed what they called "Negro Music," with an emphasis on spirituals, African American classical music, and Creole songs. They raised money for many different causes including the scholarship fund of the National Association of Negro Musicians, the NAACP, and the Anti-Lynching Fund. This generosity shows some of the variations of gendered groups, and something of the politics of respectability. It would not be until the 1970s that the B-Sharp Club added jazz to its repertoire.