Classically Black: Against the Grain

Draylen Mason.

One year ago, the city of Austin, Texas was terrorized by a bomber who, over the course of two weeks in March, murdered two people, and injured several more, with homemade bombs sent through the mail to residents of communities of color.

One of the dead was a 17-year-old classical musician, Draylen Mason, the only black member of the Austin Youth Symphony.

Dr. Kira Thurman, who has written extensively about black musicians working in the standard repertoires of western art music, uses this tragedy as the starting-off point for an exploration of what it means to be a black classical musician in the article “Singing Against the Grain: Playing Beethoven in the #BlackLivesMatter Era”:

Classical music cannot save anyone. But I still find our discussions of its role in black lives too one-note, tone-deaf and flat. What is absent from conversations on black experiences in classical music and what is grossly underestimated in our debates is classical music’s shocking power . . . Black popular music is not the only thing capable of moving the body irrespective of what the mind wants.

. . . I do not believe that the answer to critics’ questioning of blackness and classical music is for black people to stop playing it. Such an argument allows only white people the freedom to enjoy a musical work for its own sake, and it dictates to black people not only what their social responsibilities are as artists, but the terms by which they are to fight against their own oppression.

. . . Held up as symbols of racial advancement, used to denigrate others who cannot or will not make the same aesthetic choices, or denounced as Uncle Toms, black classical musicians inhabit a liminal space. But it is a space that encourages us to consider the full range of experiences that should be available to people of color, including the pleasure of abstract, even Western, art music. It is a space in which Draylen Mason chose to thrive. And because of him and others, it is a space in which I choose to remain.

Read the whole thing.

Dr. Thurman imagines Draylen Mason performing this concerto for his Oberlin audition:


Here is the music Dr. Thurman played at her own conservatory audition.

A Bach prelude: she doesn’t specify which one, so here are a few.

Beethoven’s Piano Sonata in F minor, op. 2, no. 1:

Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C-sharp minor:


Other pieces that Thurman says have moved her in particular:

You will notice that I was unable to find any videos of performances of the above pieces by black musicians. Why do you think this is? Is it important? How can this absence be addressed?

The composer Anthony R. Nelson speaks to some of the issues facing black composers of art music:

As a frequent attendee of new [classical] music events around the world, I often feel as though the presence of people who look like me is not wanted or is merely tolerated . . .this feeling arises mainly from observations of concert programming [whose absence of works by black composers sends] the message “black composers have not composed music good enough for us to play or for this stage” . . . Classical music did not escape the greater social construct of racism and patriarchy, which is why composers such as Ignatius Sancho, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, Blind Tom, Florence Price, Margaret Bonds, William Grant Still, and plenty more are usually only studied in non-required specialized classes. . . There is also a trend that places the music of black composers mostly in themed concerts, more often than not related to social justice or for Black History Month. While this is not necessarily negative, the injustice arises when absolute music or music with non-social themes by black composers is overlooked. In sum, we are not one-trick ponies.

Some examples of new classical music by black composers referenced by Kira Thurman:

Cycles of My Being, a song cycle composed by Tyshawn Sorey, with texts by Terrance Hayes, performed by Lawrence Brownlee.

Read the program for one of Brownlee’s performances of this piece, with the texts, here.

The Spark Catchers, by black British composer Hannah Kendall:


Anthony R. Nelson is himself one of the founders of a classical music ensemble with the beautiful name Castles of Our Skins, which is dedicated to fostering and performing works by composers of color. Here is video from some of their concerts:



Why do you think black composers are so rare in the worlds of classical music? Do you think the western art music traditions offer meaningful opportunities for self-expression for black musicians and audiences?

So Black and Blue

Ralph Ellison, above, writes in Invisible Man, his 1952 novel about race in America:

Now I have one radio-phonograph; I plan to have five. There is a certain acoustical deadness in my [apartment], and when I have music I want to feel its vibration, not only with my ear but with my whole body. I’d like to hear five recordings of Louis Armstrong playing and singing “What Did I Do to Be so Black and Blue ”— all at the same time. Sometimes now I listen to Louis while I have my favorite dessert of vanilla ice cream and sloe gin. I pour the red liquid over the white mound, watching it glisten and the vapor rising as Louis bends that military instrument [the trumpet] into a beam of lyrical sound. Perhaps I like Louis Armstrong because he’s made poetry out of being invisible. I think it must be because he’s unaware that he is invisible. And my own grasp of invisibility aids me to understand his music . . . Invisibility, let me explain, gives one a slightly different sense of time, you’re never quite on the beat. Sometimes you’re ahead and sometimes behind. Instead of the swift and imperceptible flowing of time, you are aware of its nodes, those points where time stands still or from which it leaps ahead. And you slip into the breaks and look around. That’s what you hear vaguely in Louis’ music.

“(What Did I Do to Be So) Black and Blue?” is a song by pianist and composer Fats Waller, with lyrics by Andy Razaf; it was written for the score of Hot Chocolates, a 1929 Broadway musical with an all-black cast. The original context for the song is a plot line about colorism, in which a dark-skinned woman loses her love interest to a lighter-skinned woman.

Louis Armstrong made his Broadway debut in the show’s pit orchestra, and recorded the song for Okeh Records later that year.

The lyrics:

Cold empty bed, springs hard as lead
Pains in my head, feel like old Ned
What did I do to be so black and blue?

No joys for me, no company
Even the mouse ran from my house
All my life through I’ve been so black and blue

I’m white inside, but that don’t help my case
Cause I can’t hide what is on my face
I’m so forlorn. Life’s just a thorn
My heart is torn. Why was I born?
What did I do to be so black and blue?

I’m hurt inside, but that don’t help my case
Cause I can’t hide what is on my face
How will it end? Ain’t got a friend
My only sin is in my skin
What did I do to be so black and blue?
Tell me, what did I do to be so black and blue?

In his book Sounding the Color Line: Music and Race in the Southern Imagination, Erich Nunn writes:

The song’s lyrics proclaim the superficiality of visible racial difference, proposing an understanding of race as skin-deep. While calling attention to the arbitrary significance of skin color in the verses, however, the song [also] ironically points to a normative . . . whiteness . . . “Black and Blue” balances the relative frivolity of the Broadway show tune genre with social satire and critique.

Do you agree that Louis Armstrong meant to present the song as ironic social commentary?

While on a European tour in 1965, Armstrong watched news footage of the beating of civil rights protesters in Selma. Although he hadn’t performed the song in many years, in a concert in East Berlin a few weeks later, he

revived “Black and Blue,” but with a crucial lyric change. He sang, “I’m right inside, but that don’t help my case/’cause I can’t hide what is on my face.” The song concludes, “My only sin is in my skin/What did I do to be so black and blue?” Armstrong had turned “Black and Blue” into a song of racial protest, one that he would continue to play for the rest of his life.

Watch that performance here, and notice that Armstrong very pointedly changes the lyric at 3:27.

How does this change alter the meaning of the song in its entirety? Does the change of one word change the song’s entire message?

Barbados

On the new album Our Native Daughters, featuring Rhiannon Giddens, Amethyst Kiah, Leyla McCalla, and Allison Russell (above), there is a banjo tune titled “Barbados,” believed to be the first western notation of a slave song in the new world. The melody was transcribed by one D.W. Dickson in Barbados in the 18th century. Giddens writes in the liner notes:

This scrap of melody has of course been through a lens – the man who wrote it down would have had a firm western sense of melody and rhythm, and most likely would have corralled any kind of partial tone to fit the western scale; and if he didn’t write it down on the spot [upon hearing a slave sing or play it], he was then relying on the imperfect human memory . . . that being said, it is still a portal, however imperfect, to a time long ago, and to a people whose lives often passed unmarked and unmourned by the society around them.

The song is bookended by two poems about slavery. The first, “Pity for Poor Africans,” an ironic 1788 anti-slavery verse by the abolitionist English poet William Cowper:

I own I am shocked at the purchase of slaves, 
And fear those who buy them and sell them are knaves; 
What I hear of their hardships, their tortures, and groans 
Is almost enough to draw pity from stones. 

I pity them greatly, but I must be mum, 
For how could we do without sugar and rum? 
Especially sugar, so needful we see; 
What, give up our desserts, our coffee, and tea? 

Besides, if we do, the French, Dutch, and Danes, 
Will heartily thank us, no doubt, for our pains: 
If we do not buy the poor creatures, they will: 
And tortures and groans will be multiplied still. 

The second poem is by the album’s co-producer Dirk Powell, updated for the modern age:

I own I am shocked at prisoners in the mines,
And kids sewing clothes for our most famous lines
What I hear of their wages seems slavery indeed
It’s enough that I fear it’s all rooted in greed

I pity them greatly, but I must be mum
For what about nickel, cobalt, lithium
The garments we wear, the electronics we own
What – give up our tablets, our laptops and phones?

Besides, if we do, the prices will soar
And who could afford to pay one dollar more?
Sitting her typing, it seems well worth the price
And you there, listening on your favorite device

This bargain we’re in – well it’s not quite illict
So relax my friend – we’re not all complicit.

What do you think? Are we, in fact, all complicit?

Rap ≠ Hip Hop

Trigger/content warning: racist language in sources, including the n-word.

Wynton Marsalis has said of hardcore rap:

I call it “ghetto minstrelsy” . . . Old school minstrels [i.e. whites in blackface] used to say they were “real darkies from the real plantation.” Hip-hop substitutes the plantation for the streets. Now you have to say that you’re from the streets, you shot some brothers, you went to jail. Rappers have to display the correct pathology. Rap has become a safari for [white] people who get their thrills from watching African-American people debase themselves, men dressing in gold, calling themselves stupid names like Ludacris or 50 Cent, spending money on expensive fluff, using language like ‘bitch’ and “ho” and “nigger” . . . Listen, I don’t have to attack hip-hop. Hip-hop attacks itself. It has no merit, rhythmically, musically, lyrically. What is there to discuss?

Does Marsalis make a legitimate argument?

He also asserts that hip hop disrespects the time-honored traditions of African-American music.

Sampling . . . just shows you that the drummer has been replaced by a loop. The drum – the central instrument in African-American music, the sound of freedom – has been replaced by a repetitive loop. What does that tell you about hip-hop’s respect for African-American tradition?

It’s an interesting point. As you will recall, drums were banned after the 1739 Stono Rebellion, leading to the emergence of patting juba.

Nevertheless, on his 2007 album From the Plantation to the Penitentiary, Marsalis raps.

The lyrics:

You got to speak the language the people
Are speakin’

Specially when you see the havoc it’s wreakin’
Even the rap game started out critiquin’
Now it’s all about killing and freakin’
All you ’60s radicals and world beaters
Righteous revolutionaries and Camus readers
Liberal students and equal rights pleaders
What’s goin’ on now that y’all are the leaders
Where y’all at? (That’s what I’m talkin’ about)
Where y’all at? (Where y’all at?)
Where y’all at?
Where y’all at? (Lord have mercy)
Don’t turn up your nose

It’s us that’s stinkin’
And it all can’t be blamed on the party
Of Lincoln
The left and the right got the country sinkin’
Knocked the scales from Justice hand and
Set her eyes a-blinkin’
All you patriots, compatriots, and true
Blue believers
Brilliant thinkers and overachievers
All you “when I was young
We were so naïve’ers
Y’all started like Eldridge [Cleaver] and now

You’re like Beaver
Where y’all at?
Where y’all at?
Where y’all at?
Where y’all at?
We supposed to symbolize freedom and pride
But we got scared after King and the
Kennedys died
We take corruption and graft in stride
Sittin’ around like owls talkin’ ’bout “WHO?
Who lied?”
All you po’ folks victims of rich folks game

All you rich folks gettin’ ripped off in the
Same name
All you gossips cacklin’ “It’s a dirty shame”
And whistle blowers cryin’ ’bout who’s to blameWhere y’all at?
Where y’all at?
Where y’all at?
Where y’all at?Well, it ain’t about black and it ain’t about
The white
They’ll get together to make your pocket light.
When you just keep on payin’ do your jaws
Get tight?
Taxes, that’s your real inalienable right
All you afro-wearers and barbershop experts
Cultists, sectarians, political disconcerts

Big baggy pants wearers with the long
White T-shirts
The good man that counter what the
Bad man asserts

Where y’all at?
Where y’all at?
Where y’all at?
Where y’all at?

After 9/11 the whole world
Was ready to love us
Now everybody can’t wait to rub us
We runnin’ all over the world with a blunderbuss
And the Constitution all but forgot in the fuss
All you feminists and mothers, fathers

And brothers
I guess you’d pimp your daughters if you
Had your druthers
All you “It’s not me” it’s always others
You watch the crimes, you close your shutters

Folks watchin’ Fox and CNN News
Seekin’ a cure for the Red, White, and Blues
Well, it won’t matter which side you choose
If we end up payin’ international dues
All you “In my day it used to be” frauds
All you “So what”s and “Leave it to the Lawd”s
All you “I’ll just deal with whatever cards”
All you extend adolescent American Bards
Where y’all at?
Where y’all at?
Where y’all at?
Where y’all at?

He explains: “It’s rapping, but it ain’t hip-hop.”

What do you think?

It’s worth noting also

What about this famous song from 1970 by Gil Scott-Heron, known as the “Godfather of Rap”? Is it rap if it lacks flow, scansion, or rhymes?

How do you define rap?

How would you describe the difference between rap and hip hop?

JumpJim’s Southern Journey

Men Working, Lois Mailou Jones

Some of the music JumpJim describes hearing on his trip to buy old blues records with Chester Bly — a trip that has many unintended consequences.

JumpJim describes:

Chester, knocking on doors, asking his monomaniacal question. Got any records? Under your porch, maybe? Pay a dime a piece.

Here are some of the records the two get hold of.

Texas Alexander’s “Levee Camp Moan Blues,” above, contains the lyric quoted on p. 151:

They accuse me of forgery: can’t even sign my name
They accuse me of forgery: can’t even sign my name
Accuse me of murder, I never know the man

As the two leave Mississippi after Chester’s encounter with Miss Alberta, JumpJim hears a little boy singing the words “Pharaoh army sure got drownded.” This is from the spiritual “Mary, Don’t You Weep.” Why do you think Kunzru includes this song?

And on Seth’s own southern journey, tracing the footsteps of Chester Bly, he refers to this song on p. 212.


Ridden by the Spirit(s)

Yemaya (Yoruba deity of the sea and fertility), by Jorge Sanfiel.

JumpJim, the old record collector in White Tears, describes his mentor Chester Bly’s passion for collecting old blues 78s on page 136 of the novel:

By any standards, I was a serious collector, but he seemed to have nothing else, no need [for anything else] . . . He was just a vehicle for his obsession, what the Haitians call a cheval, a mount for the spirits to ride.

The cheval, or, in Haitian Kreyol, chwal, is a person possessed, or “ridden,” by a spirit (lwa) summoned in a Vodou ceremony. Vodou, while derived from West African religion, is a distinctly Haitian practice:

Haiti, the saying goes, is “70% Catholic, 30% Protestant, and 100% Vodou”. Vodou is everywhere in the Caribbean nation, a spiritual system infusing everything from medicine and agriculture to cosmology and arts.

Read more about Vodou ceremony — of which music is an integral part — and watch video here.

While in the Vodou religion, only Haitians can be “ridden” as chwals by the spirits (lwas), Kunzru seems to be suggesting that this kind of possession is more than metaphorical. What do you think?

Dr. Teresa Reed describes a similar practice in the black Pentecostal church of her childhood in Gary, Indiana, one of the northern industrial cities to which rural southern blacks moved en masse during the Great Migration:

There were many labels for this particular brand of the Lord’s work. The solitary dancer might be described as “getting the Holy Ghost,” “doing the holy dance,” “shouting,” “being filled,” “catching the Spirit,” “being purged,” or simply as someone “getting a blessing.” Whatever the descriptor, the phenomenon was familiar to all members of this religious culture. And it was understood that music –not just any music, but certain music — could facilitate such manifestations. . . [But]the parishioners at my urban, black-American church had no awareness of the many parallels between our Spirit-driven modes of worship and those common to our Afro-Caribbean counterparts.

Read Dr. Reed’s article, “Shared Possessions: Black Pentecostals, Afro-Caribbeans, and Sacred Music,” here.

Watch this, and notice the similarities, among other things, in dress between the church ladies and the Yoruban/Vodou/Santeria priestesses.

What, in Pentecostal church music, allows/inspires the Holy Spirit to take possession of the believer?

A medley of “praise breaks”:

In her article “Unenslaveable Rapture: Afrxfuturism and Diasporic Vertigo in Beyoncé’s Lemonade,” Valorie D. Thomas posits Beyoncé’s visual album in the context of Yoruba religion. In the video for “Denial,” for instance, Beyoncé jumps from a skyscraper and dives into the water, reemerging as a figure of Yemaya, the Yoruba orisha (deity) who rules the waters and fertility. Read Thomas’s article here.

You know this famous gospel song:

In 1969, gospel singer Dorothy Combs taught it to white folk and rock singers Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez, and Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, and performed it with them at the Big Sur Music Festival. Is its effect on the mostly-white audience similar to its effect on black worshippers?

The Arkansas-born Sister Rosetta Tharpe (1915-1973) was one of the first Pentecostal gospel artists to cross over into pop music. Her churchgoing fans were scandalized by her forays into secular music, but her passionate, shouting singing style and her use of distortion on the electric guitar were hugely influential on both black and white artists, and came to be known as the Godmother of Rock and Roll.

Other artists crossed over in the other direction, like the Reverend Al Green, who went from this:

To this:

What elements do soul and gospel share? What about rock and gospel?

Do you think that the audiences at rock festivals in the 1970s were experiencing a similar sensation of being ridden by the Spirit? How does music play a part in these experiences?

Captain Jack

The figure of Captain Jack appears early on in White Tears, in a song lyric that Carter is shown singing to himself on p. 29. Carter later mixes the song with the one that Seth recorded by chance in Washington Square Park, gives it an artificially gritty, vintage sound, and releases the result online as “Graveyard Blues,” which he claims was recorded in 1928 on a record label he calls Key & Gate by Charlie Shaw (“Just a name I made up,” he explains).

Carter’s reference to Captain Jack is from Son House’s “County Farm Blues” (1941):

Down South, when you do anything, that’s wrong
Down South, when you do anything, that’s wrong
Down South, when you do anything, that’s wrong
They’ll sure put you down on the country farm

Put you down under a man they call “Captain Jack”
Put you under a man called “Captain Jack”
Put you under a man they call “Captain Jack”
He sure write his name up and down your back

Put you down in a ditch with a great long spade
Put you down in a ditch with a great long spade
Put you down in a ditch with a great long spade
Wish to God that you hadn’t never been made

On a Sunday the boys be lookin’ sad
On a Sunday the boys be lookin’ sad
On a Sunday the boys be lookin’ sad
Just wonderin’ about how much time they had

The County Farm is the Mississippi State Penitentiary, otherwise known as Parchman Farm, a notoriously brutal, segregated prison, where black inmates

were essentially slaves again . . . They worked long hours for no pay, were poorly fed, and slept in tents at work sites doing dangerous jobs like dynamiting tunnels for railroad companies and clearing malarial-filled swamps for construction. Convicts, sometimes including children under age 10, were whipped and beaten, underfed, and rarely given medical treatment. [David] Oshinksy [author of “Worse Than Slavery: Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice”] writes that between 9 and 16 percent of convicts died yearly in the 1880s.

Bluesman Bukka White (1906?-1977) also did time at Parchman for assault. Folklorist John Lomax met and recorded him there. In 1940, White released “Parchman Farm Blues.”

Judge gimme me life this morn’in
Down on Parchman Farm
Judge gimme me life this morn’in
Down on Parchman Farm
I wouldn’t hate it so bad
But I left my wife in mournin’

Four years, goodbye wife
Oh you have done gone
Ooh, goodbye wife
Oh you have done gone
But I hope someday
You will hear my lonesome song, yeah

Oh you, listen you men
I don’t mean no harm
Oh-oh listen you men
I don’t mean no harm
If you wanna do good
You better stay off old Parchman Farm, yeah

We go to work in the mo’nin
Just a-dawn of day
We go to work in the mo’nin
Just a-dawn of day
Just at the settin’ of the sun
That’s when da work is done, yeah

Ooh, I’m down on old Parchman Farm
I sho’ wanna go back home, yeah
I’m down on the old Parchman Farm
But I sho’ wanna go back home, yeah
But I hope someday I will overcome.

Son House (1902-1988) was born in Clarksdale, Mississippi. He moved to Rochester, New York during the Great Migration, where he gave up music, working as a porter on the New York Central Railroad. House was “rediscovered” in the 1960s by a group of young white record collectors (not unlike, perhaps, JumpJim and Chester Bly a decade earlier) who had searched for him fruitlessly for years in Mississippi.

Though he spent most of his life in upstate New York, House sang, in the song “Clarksdale Moan”: “Clarksdale, Mississippi always gon’ be my home.” The song also contains the lines, “Every day in the week, I go down to Midtown Drugs/Get me a bottle of snuff and a bottle of Alcorub.” Alcorub was rubbing, or isopropyl, alcohol, “alcohol of last resort for desperate alcoholics” during Prohibition (see also “Roll and Tumble”).

House had done a stint in Parchman for allegedly killing a man in a bar brawl in self-defense; he alludes to his sentence in “Mississipi County Farm Blues,” where Captain Jack is a symbol of the brutal prison wardens. After his release, he was advised to leave Clarksdale. He went to Lula, Mississippi, sixteen miles north, where he met Charley Patton. House would later perform with Patton, and traveled with him to Grafton, Wisconsin in 1930 to record at the Paramount music studios.

Clarksdale is now home to two yearly blues festivals, the Sunflower River Blues and Gospel Fest and the Juke Joint Festival.

However, as the sociologist B. Brian Foster has noted local backs usually don’t attend them, because “that’s for the white folks.”

Charley Patton also referred to Parchman in his song “Hammer Blues”:

They got me in shackles wearing my ball and chain
And they got me ready for that Parchman train

Kunzru has Chester Bly play this recording on p. 182 of White Tears.

Who was “Captain Jack”?

“Captain” is a loaded word in African-American history. The first “captains” with whom Africans had to contend were the actual captains of slave ships. In the early 19th-century poem “The Sorrows of Yamba,” John Riland wrote of the widespread practice of “dancing the slaves” during the Middle Passage in order to force them to exercise:

At the savage Captain’s beck
Now like brutes they make us prance;
Smack the cat
[i.e., whip] about the deck,
And in scorn they bid us dance.

Plantation overseers were later called “Captain.” After Emancipation, white work gang leaders took their place. As the best-known version of the John Henry ballad tells it:

John Henry said to the Captain [of his work gang]
“A man ain’t nothing but a man, 
But before I let your steam drill beat me down, 
I’d die with a hammer in my hand, Lord, Lord, 
    I’d die with a hammer in my hand.” 

It is worth noting that there are “rebel” versions of the John Henry ballad as well — versions in which the text is not sanitized to suggest that John Henry is battling a machine rather than an entire system of oppression. James P. Hauser has documented many examples, including one that includes this verse:

John Henry went to the captain’s house,
The captain was sleeping sound.
He says, “Wake up, captain, wake up now,
You ought to be dead and in the ground.”

Blues singer Sippie Wallace recorded “Section Hand Blues” in 1925, thought to be the first recording by an African American to make reference to John Henry, in which she sang:

If my captain ask for me
Tell him Abe Lincoln done set us free.
Ain’t no hammer on this road
Gonna kill poor me.
This ole hammer killed John Henry,
But this hammer ain’t gonna kill me. 

Leadbelly also recorded a song that might be considered a “rebel version” of the John Henry ballad, “Take This Hammer.”

By the time the Southern prison system was well-established in the 1920s, the “Captain” was the prison warden.

The white collector Lawrence Gellert transcribed and recorded black chain gang songs in the rural south in the 1920s and 1930s, publishing them in two anthologies, Negro Songs of Protest and Me and My Captain. His transcriptions of some of the lyrics appeared in the Communist weekly the New Masses in the 1903s. Read an example here:

Gellert’s recordings were later released on LP. An example:

We’ve talked about how sampling prison songs can change the meaning of the original text/song. How do you think covering these songs, as an earlier generation of black concert singers like Harry Belafonte did, might change their meaning?

Belafonte singing one of the songs collected and published by Lawrence Gellert in Me and My Captain, “Look Over Yonder”:

And the famous song “Old Man River,” from the 1927 Broadway musical Show Boat by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II, is a kind of sanitized version of a prison/work song. Here is the scene from the 1936 film of the show, sung by the great Paul Robeson and an anonymous chorus of black riverboat stevedores.

The Voices That Have Gone: Blues Ghosts

The only known photograph of Delta bluesman Charley Patton.

Hari Kunzru based his portrait of mid-twentieth-century collectors of early blues recordings on a loosely-knit real-life group of blues enthusiasts — made up almost entirely white men — who called themselves the “Blues Mafia.” The character of Chester Bly in particular was inspired by the legendary record collector James McKune, described by John Jeremiah Sullivan as:

twitchy, rail-thin Jim McKune, a postal worker from Long Island City, Queens, who famously maintained precisely 300 of the choicest records under his bed at the Y.M.C.A. Had to keep the volume low to avoid complaints. He referred to his listening sessions as séances.

A séance is a gathering at which people attempt to make contact with the voices of the dead. Do you think that this is a fitting metaphor for listening to old records?

Amanda Petrusich elaborates:

McKune supposedly never gave up more than 10 bucks for a 78 (and often offered less than $3), and was deeply offended—outraged, even—by collectors willing to pay out large sums of money, a practice he found garish, irresponsible, and in basic opposition to what he understood as the moral foundation of the trade. . . . For McKune, collecting was a sacred pursuit—a way of salvaging and anointing songs and artists that had been unjustly marginalized. It was about training yourself to act as a gatekeeper, a savior; in that sense, it was also very much about being better (knowing better, listening better) than everyone else. Even in the 1940s and 50s, 78 collectors were positioning themselves as opponents of mass culture.

. . . I’m not sure what McKune was looking for, exactly. Maybe the same thing we all look for in music: some flawlessly articulated truth. But I know for sure when he found it.

. . . In January 1944 McKune took a routine trip to Big Joe’s [record shop on W. 47th Street] and began pawing through a crate labeled “Miscellany,” where he found a record with “a sleeve so tattered he almost flicked past it.” It was a battered, nearly unplayable copy of Paramount 13110, Charley Patton’s “Some These Days I’ll Be Gone.” Patton had recorded the track in Grafton, Wisconsin, 15 years earlier, and he’d been dead for less than 10 when McKune first picked it up. Patton was almost entirely unknown to modern listeners; certainly McKune had never heard him before. He tossed a buck at a snoozing Clauberg [the shop’s owner] and carted the record back to Brooklyn. As [blues scholar Marybeth] Hamilton wrote, “… even before he replaced the tonearm and turned up the volume and his neighbor began to pound on the walls, he realized that he had found it, the voice he’d been searching for all along.”

Charley Patton was a Mississippi-born guitarist of mixed ancestry, allegedly the son of a former slave. What do you think it was in his voice and guitar-playing that galvanized Jim McKune?

Jim McKune’s real-life blues epiphany is echoed in JumpJim’s story in White Tears about hearing Charley Patton’s “Pony Blues” for the first time:

That sound, my God. Like it had come out of the earth. 

JumpJim begins to search for rare blues recordings:

But the sound I craved wasn’t easy to come by. Patton, Son House, Wille McTell, Robert Johnson, Willie Johnson, Skip James, John Hurt . . . the names were traded by collectors, but no one seemed to know a thing about [the musicians]. They were like ghosts at the edges of American consciousness. You have to understand, when I say no one knew, I mean no one. You couldn’t just look something up in a book. Things were hidden. Things got lost. Musicians got lost.

. . . I’ve not seen a second copy of this, Chester would say, pulling out yet another incredible record another forgotten performance by a lost genius.

“Laid down last night just trying to take my rest
My mind got to rambling like wild geese in the west”

(This lyrical excerpt is from “I Know You Rider,” also called “Woman Blues.” John and Alan Lomax transcribed this traditional song on their southern journey and published it in their 1934 anthology American Ballads and Folk Songs, attributing it to “an eighteen-year-old black girl, in prison for murder,” they had heard singing it in the south. It has been covered by countless artists — mainly white folksingers — and was a staple of the Grateful Dead’s live shows.)

Read John Jeremiah Sullivan’s long article about two musicians who got lost, “The Ballad of Geeshee and Elvie: On the Trail of the Phantom Women Who Changed American Music and Then Vanished Without A Trace,” and listen to the six songs embedded at the end of the article — recorded, like many early country blues recordings, at the Paramount Furniture Store studio in Grafton, Wisconsin (read the article to find out why).

The lyrics of one of the six songs, “Skinny Leg Blues”:

I‘m a little bitty mama, baby and I ain’t built for speed
I’m a little bitty mama, baby and I ain’t built for speed
Aaaaaaah and I ain’t built for speed
I’ve got everything that a little bitty mama needs

I’ve got little bitty legs, keep up these noble thighs
I’ve got little bitty legs, keep up these noble thighs
Aaaaaah, keep up these noble thighs
I’ve got somethin’ underneath them that works like a boar hog’s eye

But when you see me comin’, pull down your window blind
And when you see me comin’, pull down your window blind
You see me comin’, pull down your window blind
So your next door neighbor sure can hear you whine

I’m gonna cut your throat, baby, 
Gonna look down in your face. 
I’m gonna let some lonesome graveyard 
Be your resting place.

 Are the blueswomen Geeshee Wiley and Elvie (L.V.) Thomas suggesting the murderous outcome of a love gone wrong? Or are they describing sadistic, gratuitous violence? Are they talking about the logical results of “not knowing right from wrong”? Or maybe the logical results of a social system that erodes morality itself?

Selling Cars and Feeling Good

Pianist, singer, and activist Nina Simone’s 1965 recording of the song “Feeling Good” was used in a fascinating 2018 ad for a Buick model made in Shanghai.

The song begins with Simone’s unaccompanied voice, and gradually adds instrumental parts verse by verse, becoming a big-band anthem with a full horn section. The Buick ad uses an instrumental clip from the song around the 1:00 mark.

The ad uses documentary footage of China during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, including images of Mao Zedong, student Communist rallies, and so-called “struggle sessions,” during which “enemies of the Revolution” were forced to publicly admit to various crimes against the state while crowds beat and humiliated them. Ominous music plays in the background as a raspy-voiced narrator refers in vague language to those dark times, saying that “after those trials, we all rallied around what was right . . . all that matters now is what lies ahead,” as video of vibrant street life and various homegrown small entrepreneurs — an old woman carrying a bundle, various outdoor vendors — is shown. Then, to the text “Wealth is back,” a Buick GL8 goes speeding out of a garage as the Nina Simone song plays.

Why do you think Buick’s advertising executives juxtaposed a song by a controversial African-American artist with disturbing images of China’s troubled past, to sell a luxury car to the emerging Chinese upper classes? Is this a good choice? What does black music mean in this context?

And, going from the particular to the universal: do you think that appropriating sources and remixing them fundamentally changes their meaning? Or does the meaning of the original sources stay the same? Is the song “Feeling Good” fair game for remixing for the purpose of injecting capitalism into a Communist country?

Roll and Tumble

White Tears begins with an epigraph:

I rolled and I tumbled
Cried the whole night long
Woke up this morning
I didn’t know right from wrong

The earliest recorded version of these lyrics are from Hambone Willie Newbern’s “Roll and Tumble Blues,” on a 1929 Okeh Records 78.

Alan Lomax recorded Delta blueswoman Rosa Lee Hill singing a country blues version in 1959, but her musical style suggests a time decades earlier.

Muddy Waters, the Father of the Chicago Blues, recorded the song for Chess Records in 1950.

Waters later rewrote the song as “Louisiana Blues.”

In 1966, the British rock band Cream, with a young Eric Clapton on guitar, recorded the song as “Rollin’ and Tumblin.'”

The 1960s rock band Canned Heat performed it at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival. It’s worth noting that the band’s name comes from the Prohibition-era practice among the poor of straining Sterno, a fuel used in chafing dishes, through a sock, and drinking it to get drunk. The resulting drink was not only addictive but also toxic.

A 1915 ad for Sterno.

This deadly addiction was the subject of Delta bluesman Tommy Johnson’s 1928 song “Canned Heat Blues,” which Seth plays for Leonie on page 86-87 of White Tears.

Bob Dylan recorded a version of “Rollin’ and Tumblin'” in 2006.

Jeff Beck and Imogen Heap recorded a live version in 2007.

Why did Hari Kunzru use these lyrics as an epigraph to introduce his novel?

What are the implications for the individual bluesman and for society of “not knowing right from wrong”?