Before Eileen Jackson Southern began her work, black music was not considered a serious academic discipline. Students could not formally study it and major music journals published very little research about it. Today, both the American Musicological Society and the Society for American Music recognize African American music as worthy of scholarly study. “I think she single-handedly did it,” says Josephine Wright. Wright is Southern’s longtime friend and colleague, and a professor of music and black studies at Wooster College in Ohio. “She challenged the musicological community in the U.S. to look seriously at itself and the racism that existed there. And she showed that the writing, the research, and the scholarship of black music could be held to the same standard as any other academic field.”
Her landmark publications include Readings in Black American Music and African American Traditions in Song, Sermon, Tale and Dance 1600s–1920. Her 1971 publication, The Music of Black Americans: A History, was designated by the American Record Guide as “the first serious, scholarly effort to document the entire history of black music in the United States.”
In 1973, she founded the quarterly journal, Black Perspectives in Music, which she edited until 1991. The journal provided an opportunity for scholars to publish in the field and elevated the discipline in the eyes of the academy. For many of Southern’s colleagues, who needed to publish in order to earn tenure, the journal was a lifeline.
Southern assisted colleagues who were trying to gain legitimacy in the academic mainstream. “She was my lifelong mentor,” says Wright. “She taught me a great deal about scholarship, about the academy and how it worked, at a time when women and minorities were few and far between. She mentored a lot of people. She wanted to help a lot of people.”
Southern earned her bachelor’s degree and master of arts from the University of Chicago, and then studied with Gustave Reese at New York University, where she completed her Ph.D. in historical musicology in 1961. She taught at Harvard University from 1975 to 1987 and was the first African American woman tenured there in the College of Arts and Sciences.
After retiring as professor emerita of music and black studies, Southern continued to write, edit, and co-edit books, including Images: Iconography of Music in African-American Culture (1770s to 1920s). It was the first time this kind of scholarship had been applied to black American music, and it filled in gaps in the available knowledge, says Wright, who cowrote the book with Southern.
In March 2000, Southern won a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Society of American Music in appreciation of her service in furthering the study, research, and understanding of African American music. “She helped transform the field of musicology into a more inclusive discipline . . . and championed the intellectual viability and legitimacy of research in all areas of African American music through her writings and other activities,” the society’s citation notes.
Upon Southern’s retirement in 1987, she was presented with a book of essays by individuals who had helped build the field of musicology and whose research reflected Southern’s broad interests. Although she is retired, as is her journal, Southern’s legacy remains in the altered landscape of college campuses, where students can now study and contribute to the scholarly assessment of the music of black America.