The protagonist of Hari Kunzru’s 2017 novel White Tears, a young white recording engineer named Seth, describes days spent listening to music with his college friend, Carter Wallace:
We worshipped music like [Lee “Scratch”] Perry’s but we knew we didn’t own it, a fact we tried to ignore as far as possible, masking our disabling caucasity with a sort of professorial knowledge: who played congas on the B-side, the precise definition of collie. . . . The actual black kids at our school, of whom there were very few, seemed to us unsatisfactorily preppy or Christian or were basketball jocks doing business degrees . . . It seemed unfair. We were the ones who wanted to be at a soundclash in Kingston. We knew what John Coltrane was searching for when he overflew his tenor in the middle section of A Love Supreme. . . .We really did feel that our love of the music bought us something, some right to blackness.
(Lee Perry’s legendary Kingston studio, Black Ark.)
Carter, a white trust-fund baby, has schooled Seth in black music:
He began with Jamaican dub. From there, he introduced ska and soca, soul and RnB, seventies Afrobeat and eighties electro. He spun early hip hop and Free Jazz and countless regional flavors of Bass and Juke music. Chicago, London, Lagos, Miami. I had not known there was such music . . . He listened exclusively to black music because, he said, it was more intense and authentic than anything made by white people.
What do you think Seth and Carter mean by authentic?
(John Lomax recording Huddie Ledbetter, aka Leadbelly, at Angola State Prison in Louisiana in the early 1930s.)
In the early 1900s, the pioneering musicologist John Lomax began collecting old American songs and ballads. To “collect,” in this context, means to go “into the field” to transcribe or record people singing and playing traditional music. The “subjects” who performed in these circumstances were usually not professional musicians, but rather ordinary people in rural America who had learned the music from their parents and grandparents. Lomax and his son, Alan, had a special interest in preserving the legacy of African-American music born of slavery. In the face of rapid industrialization and urbanization during the Great Migration, as people moved en masse from the country to the cities, old customs, traditions, and music were inevitably being lost (in addition to collecting songs, John Lomax directed the U.S. government’s Depression-era project to interview and transcribe the narratives of former slaves, many of whom were still alive). Among the Lomaxes’ most important work were their recordings of the music of the black inmates of Southern prisons, which they believed, due to their isolation, helped incubate an environment that allowed the prisoners to retain the old songs in their purest possible forms, without any corrupting influences from the world outside.
It’s worth noting that John Lomax saw the conveniences of modern life as a threat to folk culture, and lamented the spread of the radio and gramophone, because he feared that when poor rural blacks had contact with the dominant culture, it would contaminate the purity of their music. He called jazz “the debased offspring of Negro songs,” and cautioned that “the Negro, living among a people allegedly his superior, is always strongly tempted to imitate them . . .Negroes grow to resemble white folks where the models are sufficiently numerous.”
John Lomax’s concern with preservation of black folk music in its purest forms was also in conflict with efforts towards racial uplift in the Southern black community. Lomax railed against the
prosperous members of the [black] community, bolstered by the church and the schools, sneering at the naiveté of the folk songs and unconsciously throwing the weight of their influence . . . against anything not pattered after white bourgeois culture . . . [who are] killing the best and most genuine Negro folk songs.
This makes the philosophy of preservation, as you will see as you continue to read White Tears, an especially fraught notion.
The Lomaxes’ recordings fueled a new interest in traditional American music, especially among politically-progressive educated whites. In the 1940s and 1950s, listeners who were tired of the commercial values of the burgeoning music industry began turning to the Anthology of American Folk Music, a set of multiple LPs of the blues, gospel, and folk songs the Lomaxes had recorded. The Anthology was so influential that it “became something like the Bible of the folk revival . . . Bob Dylan wouldn’t have been possible without it.” As Louis Proyect notes, in his first year of college in 1961,
the kids . . . had stopped listening to Elvis . . . five years [ago] or so. By the time I got to Bard College . . . an epicenter of the folk music revival, we were all desperate for something more authentic than Tin Pan Alley. This meant listening to Ewan MacColl as well as Charlie Parker who had died only six years earlier. When I got to Bard, it was the first time I had ever heard people playing guitars and banjos, singing Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly songs.
Leadbelly was “discovered” by the Lomaxes when they recorded singers at Angola State Prison in Louisiana in 1933 (see image above). John Lomax petitioned the governor of Louisiana to have him released early, and took him on tour around the U.S. In 1937, Life magazine published an article about him entitled: “Lead Belly: Bad N*gger Makes Good Minstrel.”
This scene from the 2014 film Inside Llewyn Davis, about the misadventures of a New York folksinger in the early 1960s, is emblematic. The titular character sings “Dink’s Song,” collected and published by John Lomax, at a Columbia professor’s dinner party.
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