Authenticity, part III: White Tears

whitetears

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.

What does Kunzru mean by “cultural capital”?

Read this fascinating interview with Kunzru on the research he did on the histories of blues recording and record collecting.

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

But it’s true

We’re only welcome for our drink and smoke . . . 

W. C. Handy, I’m rich and I’m fey

And I’m not familiar with what you played

But I get such strong impressions of your hey day

Looking up and down old Beale Street . . . 

Furry sings the blues

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 genre of the laughing song comes from the 19th-century. These songs start with a black performer singing about the racist things white people say when they see them. Then the song dissolves into rhythmic laughing. It’s the laughter of somebody who is trying to diffuse a potentially violent situation. There is such a horror to the laughter. The laughter is a window into what it felt like to be a black man on the street at sun down in the south during segregation. 

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:

I specified to the publisher that I wanted it to run as spread so that the reader turns the page and has “ha ha ha” on the left and right side. To me that is the heart of darkness, or the heart of whiteness, in the book. It’s the kind of horror that can’t be described and just exists in this contentious laughter.

A remaster of the original 1891 recording of  “The Negro Laughing Song” by George W. Johnson:

Another suggested playlist for the book is here.

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As you know, I love this book. On the other hand, my brother, the music critic George Grella (above), who wrote this book about Miles Davis, said about White Tears on GoodReads:

This is a terrible book.

. . . 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.

Fighting words. What do you think?

Spirituals, Black English, and the Sonic Color Line

AmericanEnglishDialects

Map of American English dialects.

On July 5, 2018,  The Nationa left-leaning magazine of politics and culture founded in 1865, published a poem on its website called “How-To.” The poem, meant to be an ironic critique of the limits of white liberal compassion, uses what is called, in the field of linguistics, African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) to set out a list of rules, offered by one homeless person to another, on how to maximize their contributions. The punch-line: it’s all about making donors feel good about themselves, further marginalizing the presumably black, possibly sick, and perhaps disabled panhandler:

If you got hiv, say aids. If you a girl,
say you’re pregnant––nobody gonna lower
themselves to listen for the kick. People
passing fast. Splay your legs, cock a knee
funny. It’s the littlest shames they’re likely
to comprehend. Don’t say homeless, they know
you is. What they don’t know is what opens
a wallet, what stops em from counting
what they drop. If you’re young say younger.
Old say older. If you’re crippled don’t
flaunt it. Let em think they’re good enough
Christians to notice. Don’t say you pray,
say you sin. It’s about who they believe
they is. You hardly even there.  

The poem caused an uproar on Twitter, because the poet, Anders Carlson-Wee, looks like this:

anders__morning

The backlash inspired The Nation’s poetry editors to publish an apology, claiming that they had

made a serious mistake by choosing to publish the poem . . . When we [first] read the poem we took it as a profane, over-the-top attack on the ways in which members of many groups are asked, or required, to perform the work of marginalization. We can no longer read the poem in that way.

The poet himself tweeted out:

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The Nation’s apology in turn caused a backlash-against-the-backlash. It was noted that the magazine had never before issued an apology for publishing a poem, even after the great American novelist

Henry James . . in 1865 wrote a damning review of Walt Whitman’s “Drum Taps,” calling the great poem “arrant prose.” Mistaken, yes, but it was James’s view at the time. And it was never retracted.

(You can read “Drum Taps” here. I’m going to go out on a limb, incidentally, and suggest that it’s a far better poem than “How-To.”)

The cultural critic Caitlin Flanagan saw the uproar over the poem and The Nation’s mea culpa as proof that

the left, while it currently seems ascendant in our houses of culture and art, has in fact entered its decadent late phase, and it is deeply vulnerable. . . When the poetry editors of The Nation virtuously publish an amateurish but super-woke poem, only to discover that the poem stumbled across several trip wires of political correctness; when these editors (one of them a full professor in the Harvard English department) then jointly write a letter oozing bathos and career anxiety and begging forgiveness from their critics; when the poet himself publishes a statement of his own—a missive falling somewhere between an apology, a Hail Mary pass, and a suicide note; and when all of this is accepted in the houses of the holy as one of the regrettable but minor incidents that take place along the path toward greater justice, something is dying. . . 

When even Barack Obama, the poet laureate of identity politics, is moved to issue a message to the faithful, hinting that that they could be tipping their hand on all of this—saying during a speech he delivered in South Africa that a culture is at a dead end when it decides someone has no “standing to speak” if he is a white man—and when even this mayday is ignored, the doomsday clock ticks ever closer to the end.

In your opinion, is the poem “How-To” problematic? Do you think that Carlson-Wee’s use of AAVE is cultural appropriation? Is it a form of poetic blackface/blackvoice? Is it racist? Should white poets/musicians/artists/random guys on the street be “allowed” to use it? What do you think of the statement by a letter-writer to the New York Times, who maintains:

Too many of us fetishize the artist, thus distracting from the art itself. Is the chef dynamic? Is the pop singer pretty? Is the painter a person of color? Is the writer politically correct?

The art must stand on its own, independent of the creator. Does it move us? Does it reveal something true? Will it last?

It is only through this lens that art can reach its ideal of illuminating and improving the human condition.

Regardless of the relative merits of Anders Carlson-Wee’s poem, can we — should we — regard art as being separate from the artist, as having its own life and mission? (Some of you will recall this as a topic we discussed in Music 101 and Music 111: see here, here and here.)

The black linguist John McWhorter dismisses the uproar over the poem:

I suspect that many are quietly wondering just what Carlson-Wee did that was so wrong—and they should. . . .Whence the outrage among so many against black people depicted accurately speaking in a way that, well, a great many definitely do? . . . Black English . . .  is not a degraded variety of the language—it’s an alternate form of English. . . .Carlson-Wee, as a young white man dedicating a poem to a homeless black person’s suffering and trying to get inside her head, would seem to be displaying exactly the kind of empathy that we seek. “Feel it but don’t show it,” we tell him, instead. “Empathize, but block that empathy from your creative impulses, on the pain of hurting us by imitating us without our consent.”

There is logic here, but it is fragile.

What do you think?

I will tell you a personal story. The great black mezzo-soprano Barbara Smith Conrad was one of my voice teachers. She was a beloved mentor, and she even sang at my wedding — a great honor.

Barbara Conrad and me

In addition to her work as an opera soloist and teacher, Barbara was involved in the creation of the Endowment for the Study of American Spirituals at the University of Texas, her alma mater. She believed that spirituals were a legitimate genre of art song, like German Lieder or French mélodies. And, just as one sings Lieder in German or mélodies in French, she believed that one must sing spirituals in the accent of AAVE. I remember her coaching me in Harry T. Burleigh’s great song “Deep River,” and correcting my English: “Say ‘Jerdan,’ not ‘Jordan.'” Barbara told me that I had to sing the repertoire of spirituals. “You have that pathos in your voice,” she said. Indeed, she believed that this repertoire belonged to the world, and that all singers, not just singers of color, should perform it.

Here is Barbara Smith Conrad singing it:

Here is Binghamton favorite, the beautiful soprano Meroë Khalia Adeeb, singing “Deep River”:

Here is the great mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson singing it (notably, not in AAVE dialect):

It is worth noting that some prominent black poets of the twentieth century wrote both in Standard American English and in AAVE. In doing so, they were not trivializing Black English, but, rather, promoting it as a legitimate language full of nuance and meaning, as Barbara Smith Conrad strove to do with her teaching of spirituals. James Weldon Johnson, for instance, best known for writing the text of “Lift Ev’ry Voice,” also wrote poems in dialect, like this one, “Sence You Went Away”:

Seems lak to me de stars don’t shine so bright,
Seems lak to me de sun done loss his light,
Seems lak to me der’s nothin’ goin’ right,
    Sence you went away.

Seems lak to me de sky ain’t half so blue,
Seems lak to me dat ev’ything wants you,
Seems lak to me I don’t know what to do,
    Sence you went away.

Seems lake to me dat ev’ything is wrong,
Seems lak to me de day’s jes twice es long,
Seems lak to me de bird’s forgot his song,
    Sence you went away.

Seems lak to me I jes can’t he’p but sigh,
Seems lak to me ma th’oat keeps gettin’ dry,
Seems lak to me a tear stays in ma eye,
    Sence you went away.

Johnson meant this poem to be a kind of folk expression of sorrow elevated to the level of poetry, just as serious as, say, a lament of the Greek poet Sappho (630-570 BCE):

He is dying, Aphrodite;
luxuriant Adonis is dying.
What should we do?

Beat your breasts, young maidens.
And tear your garments
in grief.

What do you think?

The Fisk Jubilee Singers performing “Steal Away” from an early recording (“Steal Away” was the first number on the program of their first concert tour of the United States, in 1871):

Barbara Smith Conrad singing it in a 1997 recording:

The US Naval Academy Men’s Glee Club singing it:

The National Taiwan University Chorus singing it:

Which version do you like the best? Why? Do you think your reactions might be different if you gave the various performances a “blind listening”?

More on Barbara Smith Conrad: