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, 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.
Although the Lomaxes were committed to the preservation of traditions that were in danger of dying out, their legacy has been re-examined in recent years.
[Patricia] Turner and some other scholars have come to question [Alan] Lomax’s influence. Lomax’s emphasis on the blues, they believe, presented a distorted and stereotypical picture of blacks. Karl Hagstrom Miller, the author of Segregating Sound: Inventing Folk and Pop Music in the Age of Jim Crow, says when Lomax arrived in a black community, he didn’t ask for “‘the songs that you enjoy singing.’ He asked for them to find songs that fit into his idea of old time folk songs.”
This raises questions about whether the music the Lomaxes transcribed and recorded was truly authentic, or whether it was cherry-picked based on their notions of what black music should be.
The Lomaxes’ recordings fueled a new interest in traditional American music. 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.”