The early twentieth-century white folklorist Dorothy Scarborough once interviewed the famous bandleader W.C. Handy (1873- 1958), known as the Father of the Blues, about the origin of the blues. When Scarborough asked him about the relationship of the blues to folk music, Handy replied that that the blues were folk music, pure and simple. What did he mean by this?
Handy’s first hit, “Memphis Blues,” published in 1908:
“St. Louis Blues,” from 1914:
While Handy was the first composer to publish blues songs (and one of the first African-Americans to make a living from music publishing), he openly acknowledged that his own music was influenced by the rural African-American folk music he had heard and transcribed while touring Mississippi in 1902-1905. In his memoir, Father of the Blues, Handy described sharing the stage at a dance he played with a trio of musicians who
struck up one of those over and over strains that seem to have no beginning and certainly no ending at all. The strumming attained a disturbing monotony, but on and on it went, a kind of stuff associated with [sugar] cane rows and levee camps. Thump-thump-thump went their feet on the floor. It was not really annoying or unpleasant. Perhaps “haunting” is the better word.
Some of the songs that influenced Handy:
Alan Lomax wrote in 1948:
Child of [the] fertile [Mississippi] Delta land, voice of the voiceless black masses, the blues crept into the back windows of America maybe forty years ago and since then has colored the whole of American popular music. Hill-billy singers, hot jazz blowers, crooners like [Bing] Crosby, cowboy yodelers — all these have learned from the native folk blues. . . . the whole world can feel, uncoiling in its ear, this somber music of the Mississippi. And yet no one had ever thought to ask the makers of these songs — these ragged mister-singers — why they sang.
Why did they sing?
In their book Our Singing Country, published in 1941, Alan Lomax and his father, John Lomax, describe the blues as a folk genre
sung by . . . unspoiled [singers] in the South, sung without the binding restrictions of conventional piano accompaniment or orchestral arrangement, [that] grow up like a wild flowering vine in the woods.
The Lomaxes, father and son, were in political conflict for their entire partnership as folksong collectors. As historian Ronald Cohen explained, “The father’s politics were considerably to the right of the son’s, yet both believed in the uniting and rejuvenating powers of folk music.” Steven Garabedian concludes that:
They were opposed politically, but they found common ground in a shared romantic idealization of an unspoiled homespun American republic. Vernacular music, they held, carried the spirit of this redemptive grassroots national culture.
The Lomaxes, working for the Library of Congress, traveled all over the southern United States from the 1930s through the 1950s, recording and transcribing folk music. They discovered Leadbelly on their first trip in 1933, and, in 1941, first recorded Muddy Waters, who was working as a tractor driver in Mississippi.
In 1946, Alan Lomax recorded three great Delta bluesmen, Bill Broonzy, Memphis Slim, and Sonny Boy Williamson, in a live conversation punctuated with music at Decca Studios in New York City. Listen to the complete interview here:
As you know by now, White Tears is the story (among other things!) of Seth, a young, white, college-educated sound engineer, who accidentally records a line from an old blues song while picking up ambient sounds in Washington Square Park. His business partner Carter, the scion of a wealthy family whose riches come from running private prisons and black ops sites, engineers the recording to make it sound vintage and posts it online, claiming it’s actually a historical recording by Charlie Shaw, a blues musician from the 1920s whose name Carter claims to have randomly made up. Soon, however, a record collector contacts them to tell them that Charlie Shaw was, and perhaps still is, a real person. So the novel is a kind of a ghost story, as well as a commentary on black music and the ways it has historically intersected with the overlapping systems of race, class, privilege, and criminal justice in America.
Hari Kunzru, an Englishman of Pakistani descent, says of his novel, “This is a book about absence,” raising the questions: Why were some black artists from the past recorded, and not others? Why are some black musicians remembered, and others forgotten?
In the video linked above, Kunzru speaks of moving to the United States around the time of Barack Obama’s first election:
The moment of false hope . . . for a post-racial America, the idea that we could just forget all this stuff and consign it to history, and then the realization that actually this history still poisons public life in the U.S. to an unbelievable degree . . . I was quite shocked by that . . . I wanted to bring my own experience, because I am an outsider, but I have a particular history with those questions here [in England]. My history is all about empire and dealing with that . . . There was a moment when . . . this romanticized idea of American history was very big in the hipster culture . . . [White Tears is also] a story about wealth and inheritance, and inherited money, and what . . . rich young people, whose parents have done whatever to make [their] money, come to New York in order to convert [financial] capital into cultural capital.
And read this essay by Rishi Nath in Africa Is A Country, which suggests that the real ghost whose presence hovers over White Tears is . . . that of Biggie Smalls.
The line of the song that Seth inadvertently picks up in the first chapter of White Tears is “Believe I buy me a graveyard of my own.” Kunzru may be referring to this song, “Furry’s Blues,” by Walter “Furry” Lewis:
And possibly also to this country blues song:
Incidentally, in 1976, Joni Mitchell wrote a song about cultural appropriation in which Furry Lewis features, “Furry Sings the Blues.” Mitchell does not excuse herself from the sin of appropriation:
Old Furry sings the blues
Propped up in his bed
With his dentures and his leg removed . . .
Old Furry sings the blues
You bring him smoke and drink and he’ll play for you
lt’s mostly muttering now and sideshow spiel
But there was one song he played
I could really feel . . .
Old Furry sings the blues
He points a bony finger at you and says
“I don’t like you”
Everybody laughs as if it’s the old man’s standard joke
Why should I expect that old guy to give it to me true
Fallen to hard luck
And time and other thieves
While our limo is shining on his shanty street
Old Furry sings the blues
In White Tears, the B-side of Charlie Shaw’s “Graveyard Blues” is given as “The Laughing Song” (see p. 230). This is a reference to “The Negro Laughing Song,” a popular song from the days of minstrelsy. As Kunzru describes it,
The lyrics of the song, consisting only of “Ha ha ha,” take up almost four entire pages near the end of the novel. The narrator, Seth, describes the sound as “hollow, forced, mechanical . . . the sound of a body undergoing discipline . . . the most terrifying sound I had ever heard.” As Kunzru explains in the interview excerpted above:
. . . Nothing against the ambition, which boils down to the question of authenticity, what it is and the dangers of pursuing it to the utmost level of purity. The vehicle is old-time American music, from poor Southern musicians, mostly black and mostly blues players, recorded in the 1920s on labels like Paramount. The characters who carry this are Seth (the protagonist) and Carter, buddies from college who use Carter’s family money to start a recording studio. They in turn are paralleled by the story of an older record collector and the obsession of one of his colleagues. Both pairs are connected through what is essentially an imaginary song from a pseudonymous musician, Charlie Shaw.
Kunzru is woefully unprepared to execute this task. The self-conscious quality of his research is painfully embarrassing throughout: the author picked up details of audio engineering, musicians’ names, song titles, and serial numbers, without ever picking up any understanding of the subject. He seems to have never heard the music in question, or it seems to have never penetrated his understanding—he comes off as the collectors themselves, obsessed with the completeness and quality of the physical object and not much interested in the art it contains. Seth and Carter somehow find themselves caring only about old acoustic recordings without ever seeming to find anything in the music that matters to them as human beings (that Kunzru name checks some well-known music writers who are features of the upper middle-class white bourgeoisie and can’t hear African-American music past Beyoncé is a tell).
This all turns into an overwrought potboiler of sex and murder, with a heaping condescension of the young white man finding, through violence and tragedy, the authentic feeling of being a young black man deep in the Jim Crow South. This is a terrible kind of slumming, Kunzru arguing that Seth has achieved this experience through writing that is nothing more than gazing at (and never putting the needle down on) the shellac grooves on a 78 side. The prose itself has the earnest, focussed, affectlessness that is everywhere now, spawned from countless MFA programs, and that is professionally smooth, bland, and that allows the author to disavow any specific meaning. That is dishonest, and the foundation of this deeply dishonest book.
(Variation V m. 30 from the second movement of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata no. 32 in C minor, op. 111.)
In 1913, an art exhibit was mounted at the 69th Regiment Armory on Lexington Avenue in New York City (around the corner from where Hunter College is now located). This exhibit, which came to be known as the Armory Show, was the first introduction to American audiences of Modernist art. One of the most notorious and vilified paintings in the show was Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase.
The artist spreads out every moment of a motion that takes place over time — a woman walking down stairs — on one plane.
The artist Man Ray did something similar a few years later with his painting The Rope Dancer Accompanies Herself With Her Shadows.
The painting shows every moment of a dance, flattened out on one canvas, all at once.
It has been theorized that the perception of time changed with the birth of Modernism. Certainly technology had something to do with this: the invention of the automobile and innovations in railroads made it possible for distances to be breached more quickly than anyone would have imagined even a few years earlier. 1913 was also the year that Stravinsky’s ballet The Rite of Spring had its premiere:
What does Stravinsky do with the concept of time in this ballet?
Do you think that Henry Ford’s assembly line, also rolled out in 1913, contributed to the changed idea of time? How?
Einstein published his Theory of General Relativity three years later, in 1916, in which he declared that gravitation is a principle of space and time, or spacetime.
Nevertheless, let us think back to the year 1822, when Beethoven wrote his last piano sonata, no. 32 in C minor, op. 111, which you studied earlier in the semester. In it, Beethoven (who was by then profoundly deaf) begins to experiment with space and time, predating Einstein’s theory by decades. In a sense, it’s not even a sonata, but rather a searching meditation on time itself.
If you look at the second movement (out of only two!) in your course packet — which Beethoven calls an “Arietta” — you will see that it starts with a sixteen-bar theme in 9/16 time. Why do you think Beethoven used such an unusual time signature?
The movement takes the form of a theme and variations. Notice that, as the variations succeed one another, Beethoven is further subdividing the beat and the time signature. Notice, for instance, that by variation III, the pianist is playing 64th notes against 32nd notes. And notice that Beethoven takes the meter from 9/16 to 6/16 to 12/32 and back. 12/32! Why does he do this?
Note that tiny note values does NOT mean fast playing.What does it mean?
And it’s not just time Beethoven is playing with: it’s also space. Space on the page, and distance on the keyboard. By the time we get to variation V, there are only eight measures per page, which is necessary because of the infinitesimal divisions of the beat. And notice that in variation V, m. 30, the pianist is asked to play virtually as high as possible on the keyboard, while in variation VI, m. 8-10 the right and left hands are outlining an enormous space across the piano from high to low.
Beethoven is expanding and compressing time and space in this late work in a way that foreshadows Einstein. Why? What do you think he means?
Julius Eastman rehearsing Peter Maxwell Davies’s Eight Songs for a Mad King.
In the past few years there has been a great deal of interest in the music of composer and performer Julius Eastman (1940-1990). Recent concerts and exhibitions of his work have been held in New York, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles, and recordings of his music have been released.
Julius Eastman grew up in this area, first in Syracuse and later in Ithaca, and studied piano and composition at the prestigious Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. He was also a profoundly gifted singer, who
Eastman was a gay man, and both his blackness and gayness figured large in his music. He gave his compositions titles like Crazy N*gger, N*gger F*ggot, and Evil N*gger. He declared: “What I am trying to achieve is to be what I am to the fullest: Black to the fullest, a musician to the fullest, a homosexual to the fullest.”
An excerpt from Evil N*gger, for four pianos:
In addition to these identities, it is very possible that Eastman was autistic as well. His mother told an interviewer in 2006 that
Julius was a different kind of baby . . . he didn’t like to be touched. Most babies want to be bounced, but you had to put Julius down. He didn’t want to be held. When he was about two years old, I used to read him stories, and, while standing in his crib, he would repeat the story word for word. So I knew right away there was something special going on.
The precocious word-for-word repetition little Julius exhibited is known as echolalia, and, combined with his sensory defensiveness, he would most likely have gotten an autism diagnosis were he a toddler today.
One performance he gave with SEM of John Cage’s Song Books, a semi-directed group improvisation, enraged the composer, who was in attendance. (For background on John Cage, browse over to this post and this post.) Eastman chose, in his solo, to give a sexually explicit lecture, which he believed was in accord with Cage’s instructions:
In a situation provided with maximum amplification (no feedback), perform a disciplined action, with any interruptions, fulfilling in whole, or in part, an obligation to others.
It was clear from his first words that there would be a little juice poured into Cage’s austere, Zen blend of indeterminacy and transcendence-of-self. For some music historians, this was a night that intersectionality and identity politics officially breached the avant-garde: “Eastman’s performance that day may have constituted an intersectional testing of the limits of his membership – or, in American racial parlance, his ‘place’ – in the experimental scene,” writes George E. Lewis, professor of American music at Columbia University . . .
Over the next 14 minutes, Eastman delivered a bizarre lecture that focused on the erotic, but played on and exploded notions about race, colonialism and sexuality. . . . He invited [a] couple onstage with him to strip – the man ended up naked, the woman only partially so due to embarrassment. . . He joked that he chose members of two [different] races because he wanted “to show the best of both worlds.”. . . All the while, his voice growing more theatrical as his fellow ensemble members began singing and playing eery electronics, Eastman was camping things up, to the delight of the audience. He wrapped his leg around his male “specimen” and puckered his mouth with his fingers. “Julius only managed to get the man undressed,” recalled S.E.M. founder and director Petr Kotik, “and being an outspoken homosexual, he was making all sorts of ‘achs!’ and ‘ahs’ as he was pulling his pants down.” A review by Jeff Simons in the Buffalo Evening News said, “By the time Eastman’s little performance was finished, Mr. Charles was completely undressed, and Eastman’s leering, libidinous, lecture-performance had everyone convulsed [in laughter] with the burlesque broadness of his homoerotic satire.”
John Cage, however, was furious, and he asked Eastman to refrain from performing this work in the future.
This raises the questions:
Once a work has been composed, to whom does it belong?
Does the composer of a piece of music as freely structured as John Cage’s Song Books have the right to dictate the performers’ choices?
Was Julius Eastman’s outspoken and outrageous gay aesthetic an affront to the restrained, abstract, zen-influenced aesthetic of John Cage (who was also openly gay)?
Does race play a part in these different constructions of gay identity? In other words, was John Cage, as a white gay man, offended by Julius Eastman’s black gayness?
Two pages from Song Books by John Cage.
Because of creative differences and personal difficulties, he later resigned from the faculty of SUNY-Buffalo and moved to New York to work as a freelancer. There, he descended into mental illness, addiction, and homelessness, and he went back to Buffalo, where he died at the age of 49 of heart failure. During his dark last days, he told a fellow composer that
the music he had made reflected an ‘inconsistent period,’ best forgotten, and it nearly was. When Eastman died, only a few recordings of his powerful singing were available, and none of his compositions.
As it turned out, there were Eastman recordings, some stored in university libraries, others hidden away in private collections. . . Thanks in large part to [composer Mary Jane] Leach’s archival work, Eastman is now lionized in the art world and academia as a visionary practitioner of “intersectionality,” a queer black saint like James Baldwin.
An excerpt of a different section of Song Books, performed by the SEM Ensemble with Julius Eastman:
In June 2020, the Boston-based Black concert-music collective Castle of Our Skins collaborated on a Zoom performance of Eastman’s “Stay On It,” dedicated to essential workers of color during the coronavirus pandemic.
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.
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,
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.”
[Content warning for disturbing, racist, and violent film imagery.]
As we’ve discussed, the way that music and image interact can change, enhance, or even contradict the meaning of both the music and of the image.
We are all familiar with the ability of image to define, revise, and re-write not only past history, but even the present moment. One of the earliest examples of visual culture in the service of cultural revisionism is the 1915 silent film The Birth of a Nation, which tells the story of the Civil War and Reconstruction eras with the Ku Klux Klan as the good guys. The Birth of a Nation was considered controversial even at the time of its release. It presented destructive and tired racist tropes about African-Americans — most of whom were played in the film by white actors in blackface — and portrayed the Klan as a patriotic and heroic force for good.
In spite of its objectionable content, the film itself is considered groundbreaking for the innovative dramatic and visual techniques used by its director, D.W. Griffiths. Equally innovative was its score. Silent films were accompanied by pianists or organists who were hired by movie theaters, and the film score for Birth of a Nation, in a piano reduction, was sent to every theater that screened the film so that the theater musicians could play along, aligning the music with cues in the score. The film’s composer, Joseph Carl Breil, wrote original music, as well as making arrangements of popular songs and Civil War-era ballads and using excerpts of works by Beethoven and Wagner, including the Ride of the Valkyries (in a scene that portrays the KKK as a liberating force). Breil and Griffiths wanted the music to underscore and enhance the dramatic force of such scenes and to evoke an emotional response from the audience.
Inspired by this innovative use of music to enhance the emotional charge of a visual narrative, Francis Ford Coppola also used “Ride of the Valkyries” in his 1979 Vietnam War film Apocalypse Now, in a scene in which U.S. Army helicopters destroy a Vietnamese village.
(And of course, you’ve seen this.)
Since the early 2000s, composer, multimedia artist, and turntablist DJ Spooky has been performing his own version of Birth of a Nation, entitled Rebirth of a Nation. Spooky calls Breil’s original score “an early, pivotal accomplishment in remix culture” for its use of both original and received music. In his remixed version, Spooky has manipulated the film, shuffling scenes and adding new visual footage, and has also contributed a new score.
You can watch a live performance of Rebirth here.
Do you think that DJ Spooky’s visual and sonic remix changes the meaning of D.W. Griffith’s film?
But the other themes are pretty universal. Yes, including trucks.
And certainly failed relationships.
What is not widely known is that country music has been integrated since its earliest days. Although early recording labels divided their catalogs into “hillbilly” and “race” records, the recording sessions were often integrated. In fact, the so-called “Father of Country,” Jimmie Rodgers (1897-1933), recorded with jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong and his wife, pianist Lil Hardin Armstrong.
As multi-instrumentalist and MacArthur “Genius” Fellow Rhiannon Giddens notes, the assumptions that (1) all country music begins in Appalachia, and (2) there were no black people in Appalachia, are patently false.
In fact, Giddens recently formed the group Our Native Daughters, whose core members are four banjo-picking black women who are experts in traditional American folk music. Read more here and listen to their song “Quasheba, Quasheba” here.
The facts are that Appalachia is not a racially homogeneous region, and that American blacks have deep ties to the rural histories and landscapes of the American south, and to the roots of traditional American folk music. For more, read the transcript or watch the video of Rhiannon Giddens’s 2017 speech before the International Bluegrass Music Association, here:
thoroughbred racing and hee haw are burdensome images for Kentucky sons venturing beyond the mason-dixon
anywhere in Appalachia is about as far as you could get from our house in the projects yet a mutual appreciation for fresh greens and cornbread an almost heroic notion of family and porches makes us kinfolk somehow but having never ridden bareback or sidesaddle and being inexperienced at cutting hanging or chewing tobacco yet still feeling complete and proud to say that some of the bluegrass is black enough to know that being ‘colored‚ and all is generally lost somewhere between the dukes of hazard and the beverly hillbillies
but if you think makin‚’shine from corn is as hard as Kentucky coal imagine being an Affrilachian poet
(As you will notice from the map above, WE are in Appalachia.)
The visionary free jazz musician and Afrofuturist Sun Ra was a visiting artist and professor at the University of California-Berkeley in 1971. Here is fascinating audio from a lecture he gave in his Spring course, “The Black Man in the Cosmos.”