Will Marion Cook (1869-1944)
When the acting Dean of Howard University School of Law, and father of Will Mercer Cook died, he was sent from his home in Washington, D.C. to live with his grandparents in Chattanooga; he was ten. Within a year, his grandfather sent him home to his mother “believing it best for Will to not be in the south.” Cook’s brief time with his grandfather, however, has been pointed out as being potentially influential on his later compositions.
Cook’s initial musical education was classical. He studied violin at Oberlin Conservatory in Ohio, then with Antonín Dvořák at the National Conservatory of Music. Through performances in churches and community events, Cook had acquired a following of fans and supporters in the community. One of those supporters, Frederick Douglass, led a campaign to fund his enrollment at the Berlin Hochschule fur Musik (Library of Congress, n.d.). Douglass was also the person who encouraged Cook to change his name to Will Marion Cook.
Upon returning to the States, Cook found his career as a solo classical violin performer was hampered by segregation (“Will Marion Cook,” n.d.). He turned instead to musical theatre and would work as a conductor and musical director for Bert Williams and George Walker while writing and publishing many songs on his own (Library of Congress, n.d.). Cook was one of many distinguished and well-regarded African American composers, lyricists, and performers to gather regularly at Marshall’s Hotel on West Fifty-Third Street in Manhattan to discuss how to remove the minstrel mask from the musical stage. Cook would collaborate with one of these fellow artists, Paul Laurence Dunbar, in the writing of Clorindy, which would become a great success even though “Dunbar would later be embarrassed by his lyrics and Clorindy's adhering to the 'worst of the minstrel tradition'” (Carter, 2000). Cook, on the other hand, would declare upon Clorindy’s success, that
"Negroes were at last on Broadway, and there to stay. Gone was the uff-dah of the minstrel! Gone the Mass Linkum stuff! We were artists and we were going a long, long way!"
Though criticized in his time for adopting the demeaning aspects of ‘coon’ songs that were popularly written and received by whites, Cook was also regarded by his peers as a musical genius. W.E.B. DuBois would write about this apparent conflict:
"One ever feels his twoness - an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder." (Carter, 2000)
Cook and Dunbar would collaborate again on the musical, Dahomey, which traveled with the Williams and Walker Company from Broadway and the New York Theater in Times Square to Buckingham Palace. Cook would become known to those who studied him, and the times during which he developed his art, as “one of the most important figures in pre-jazz African American music” (Library of Congress, n.d.). Duke Ellington, who studied under, and was greatly influenced by, Cook would recall some advice he received when he was attempting to develop a theme:
"You know you should go to the conservatory, but since you won't I'll tell you. First you find the logical way, and when you find it, avoid it, and let your inner self break through and guide you. Don't try to be anybody but yourself." (Library of Congress, n.d.)
Allowing the “inner self to break through” was echoed in how he later described one of his own experiences writing music. After writing the song “Swing Along” he wrote to his son:
"Swing Along' came almost all at once...and when I sat at the piano to work it out I made very little if any change. I felt as if 'Swing Along' was exactly what we were to do - no obstacles - nothing could stop us." -Cook, in an undated letter to his son (Carter, 2000)
Songs in the USF Libraries digital African American Sheet Music Collection: