Toasts, Signifyin(g), and the Roots of Rap

Shine surviving the sinking of the Titanic.

Content warning: explicit language.

Although the cradle of rap is generally acknowledged to be community-room parties in the South Bronx, the genre draws from multiple threads and locations, from Jamaica to Louisiana to the hobo poetry of the American west.

One of these threads is toasting, a form of orally-transmitted narrative African-American folk poetry recited in rhyme and in rhythm. Toasts, according to scholars of folklore, were traditionally performed in African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) by men for male audiences in typically male settings. As Bruce Jackson, who compiled the 1974 anthology of toasts Get Your Ass in the Water and Swim Like Me puts it:

Toasts can be told anywhere — at parties, lounging around bars and street corners, on a troopship crossing the boring ocean — but they seem to be told in county jails more than anywhere else. There is so much time to kill in county jails and so little to do with that time, and so great a portion of the population in county jails is lower-class black (they are the people without money to pay a bondsman for freedom before trial or who must serve jail time because they lack money to pay a fine) . . . As much evidence as there is for viewing toasts as the literature of the street or partying black man, there is evidence to consider it, along with the worksong of the black convict in the South, as his jailhouse testament . . . and it is just those street roles of badman, pimp, hustler, and junkie described in so many of the poems that [have landed] those jailhouse [storytellers] in jail in the first place.

In other words, the subject matter of jailhouse toasts was self-referential: tales of criminal exploits recited by men who had committed similar exploits. The toasters were performing authenticity, or, in other words, keeping it real.

You can read Get Your Ass in the Water online in its entirety here.

There are folk heroes who appear over and over in toasts across geographical areas from Louisiana to California to upstate New York: they include Pimping Sam, the gambler Stackolee, the legendary pimp Dolemite, and Shine, the boilerman who survives the sinking of the Titanic and becomes a proto-Black Power hero, outwitting the standard figure of the captain.

It was sad indeed, it was sad in mind
April the four was a hell of a time.
When the news reached a seaport town
that the great Titanic was a-sinking down.
Now up popped Shine, from the decks below
and said “Captain, captain, don’t you know.
there’s forty feet of water on the boiler room floor.”
But the captain said, “Never mind Shine, just do as you’re told,
and go back down in that deep black hold.”
Shine said, “That’s funny, that’s mighty fine,
But I’m gonna save this black ass of mine.
There’s fish in the ocean and crabs in the sea
this is one time when white folks ain’t gonna bullshit me.”
So Shine jumped overboard and start to swim
and all the people on the deck is lookin’ at him.

The actor and comedian Rudy Ray Moore recorded several albums of toasts recited some toasts concerning these characters in front of a live comedy audience in the 1970s:

The great George Clinton recorded a version of “Shine and the Great Titanic” in 1997:

Rudy Ray Moore also played Dolemite, another legendary figure in the toast repertoire, in a spoof blaxploitation film of the same name in 1975:

The poet and musician Jalaluddin Mansur Nuriddin (1944 – 2018) recorded Hustlers’ Convention, an album of spoken-word toasts against live musical background, in 1973; the album, which combined funk, jazz, and poetry, would later earn him the moniker “Grandfather of Rap.” Nuriddin had learned to toast — a practice he called “spoagraphics” or “spoken pictures” during a stint in prison. Listen to the complete album here.

Chuck D of Public Enemy produced a documentary about Nuriddin’s album in 2014:

Another frequent subject of toasts is the Signifying Monkey. As you know, “signifyin(g)” is the practice of saying something with two meanings: the obvious meaning of the words and the hidden meaning, which can only be understood by members of a shared cultural group. It is a longstanding verbal practice in African-American speech, especially when dealing with (white) authorities, and has its roots in slavery.

The Signifying Monkey is a trickster figure in African-American folklore, derived from Yoruba mythology. He often appears in toasts with his friends and adversaries Lion and Elephant. Rudy Ray Moore toasts about Signifying Monkey in a clip from the movie Dolemite:

Demonstrating the roots of rap in urban toasts, the character of Signifying Monkey appears in some early rap, like the 1980 “King Monkey Rapp” by King Monkey (Jimmy Thompson):

And the 1988 “Signifying Rapper” by Schoolly D, in which Signifying Monkey is transformed into the trickster-rapper.

The lyrics

You know your daddy and he’s a faggot
And your mother’s a whore
He said he seen you sellin asshole door to door . . .
He said, your granny, she’s a dyke
And your other brother, he’s a faggot
And your little sister Loo
She’s so low she sucked the dick of a little maggot

are a version of “the dozens,” the game of exchanged insults traditionally played by black children in urban areas, typically focused on “yo mama,” such as:

Yo mama’s so poor, someone threw a cigarette in her yard & she said, “Clap yr hands, stomp your feet, thank the lord, we got heat!”

Yo mama so ugly that not even goldfish crackers smile back.

Yo mama’s so fat, she jumped in the air and got stuck.

Of course, as children become adolescents, the taunts become raunchier:

Yo mama like cake, everybody get a piece.

Yo Mama so dirty I called her up for phone sex and she gave me an ear infection.

Etc.

The dozens morphs/migrates into rap battles.

For a comprehensive library of information on toasts, black folklore, rap, and urban culture, check out this site.

Hauntological Remixing

DJ Shadow’s 1996 Endtroducing was the first album produced entirely from samples, and, as such, is considered not only a landmark of instrumental hip-hop, but also one of the greatest albums of all time.

What do you think makes it great? How does an album made up entirely of samples advance musical creativity and innovation?

The philosophy behind Endtroducing is not a new one, and it wasn’t new in 1996. The idea of a production made up of a collection of found music (such as “library music”) — with the result being a sound compilation that’s somehow greater than the sum of its parts — has its roots in deconstructionalism, a branch of twentieth-century philosophy made famous by French historian Jacques Derrida (1930-2004, below). In a nutshell, deconstructionalism, a twentieth-century derivation of Marxist philosophy, holds that all texts, all received history, and all experience are essentially unstable, and that truth itself is a construct.

What does this mean for music?

In our culture — Remix Culture — it can be said to mean, among other things, that there is no such thing as innate creativity, or as personal ownership of creative property. Deconstructionalism is the philosophy that makes an album of samples possible.

In his 1993 book Spectres of Marx, Derrida introduced the concept of “hauntology,” which he explained thus:

To haunt does not mean to be present, and it is necessary to introduce haunting into the very construction of a concept. Of every concept, beginning with the concepts of being and time. That is what we would be calling here a hauntology. Ontology [i.e. the study of the nature of being] opposes it only in a movement of exorcism. Ontology is a conjuration. . . . Everything begins before it begins. 

How can we understand this notion when we interrogate the processes of music production and sound engineering? As a producer/engineer, do you have a sense of the materials of your craft being specters/ghosts? Are you remixing or creating original work? When you remix, are you adding, taking away, or transforming the meaning of the samples you use?

And, to take it a step further: what is the meaning of the samples that you use? What is their value as historical and cultural artifacts? Are you disrupting their meaning as cultural artifacts? Are you creating new cultural artifacts?

Hauntology has also had a direct influence on music genres including dubstep, trip-hop, ambient, and hypnagogic pop. Check out these playlists:

And the irony is that decades before DJ Shadow dropped Endtroducing, the French composer Pierre Schaeffer (below, center), known as the “Godfather of Sampling,” was experimenting with looping and remixing concrete sounds in what would become known as mystique concrete.

As Jonathan Patrick notes:

Schaeffer, who was an outspoken anti-nuclear activist, once asked, “Why should a civilization which so misuses its power have, or deserve, a normal music?” By rethinking the foundations of music-making, he produced an art form that was anything but normal — a music that aimed to merge art with science, composition with engineering. His ideas turned conventional music theory on its head. Traditionally, composition moved from the abstract to the concrete — from concept and written notes to actual sounds. Schaeffer’s approach reversed the process, beginning instead with fragments of sound—field recordings of both natural and mechanical origin—which were then manipulated using studio techniques.

One of the more profound consequences of Schaeffer’s inversion of the compositional process was that composers would no longer be bound to written scores and notation. Their music could exist solely as recordings, without need for players or instruments to actualize them. 

Read the article here.

Pierre Schaefer’s pioneering work in sampling took place in the context of a post-World War II resistance to “art music,” which had traditionally been dominated by German and Austrian musical forms. It was anti-elitist, and sought to distribute the means of creation democratically to anyone who perceived sound as music and had the rudimentary tools to mix and remix it. In short, everyone was now a musician/composer/genius.

How has culture changed since the era of the Lomaxes, the “Blues Mafia,” and the early days of turntabling? How has listening changed? Have the changes been good or bad for the idea of Great Black Music (GBM)?

And then, there’s mallwave, a subgenre of vaporwave for people too young to have experienced suburban mall culture. How much of nostalgia is a longing for a time and place we’ve never been? How much of nostalgia is a longing for “authenticity”?

For a comprehensive history of re-mixing, see Dr. Alice Jones’s excellent blog.

Is Our DNA Our Identity?

Pocahontas, 1992.40

Engraving of Pocahontas (1595-1617).

The question of whether one’s innate identity is determined by DNA has come up recently in the feud between Senator Elizabeth Warren and President Trump about whether or not Warren has Native American ancestry. Trump, as you may know, has mockingly referred to Warren as “Pocahontas.” Warren had her DNA tested and published the results, which show that she had a Native American ancestor between six and ten generations ago.

Does this make Warren an Indian?

Chuck-Hoskin-Jr

According to Chuck Hoskin (above), the Secretary of State of the Cherokee Nation (like other Native tribes, a sovereign nation within U.S. territory), no.

“A DNA test is useless to determine tribal citizenship. Current DNA tests do not even distinguish whether a person’s ancestors were indigenous to North or South America,” Cherokee Nation Secretary of State Chuck Hoskin Jr. said. “Sovereign tribal nations set their own legal requirements for citizenship, and while DNA tests can be used to determine lineage, such as paternity to an individual, it is not evidence for tribal affiliation. Using a DNA test to lay claim to any connection to the Cherokee Nation or any tribal nation, even vaguely, is inappropriate and wrong. It makes a mockery out of DNA tests and its legitimate uses while also dishonoring legitimate tribal governments and their citizens, whose ancestors are well documented and whose heritage is proven. Senator Warren is undermining tribal interests with her continued claims of tribal heritage.”

What does this argument have to do with our understanding of music?

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When Antonín Dvořák came to America in 1892, he did so on the invitation of the wealthy arts patroness Jeannette Thurber (above) — who, by the way, was born not far from here, in Delhi, NY — to lead the new National Conservatory of Music in New York City. It was hoped that he would train American composers to develop a national style of music. Soon after he arrived, Dvořák told the New York Herald in an interview:

In the Negro melodies of America I discover all that is needed for a great and noble school of music. They are pathétic, tender, passionate, melancholy, solemn, religious, bold, merry, gay or what you will. It is music that suits itself to any mood or purpose. There is nothing in the whole range of composition that cannot be supplied with themes from this source. The American musician understands these tunes and they move sentiment in him.

In an unprecedented move, Dvořák welcomed black and female composition students into his classes. Among his students were violinist and composer Will Marion Cook, who had studied with Brahms’s great friend Joseph Joachim in Berlin, and singer and composer Harry T. Burleigh.

“A Negro Sermon,” an art song by Cook.

“Lovely Dark and Lonely One,” an art song by Burleigh.

Harry T. Burleigh’s song “The Young Warrior,” a setting of a poem by James Weldon Johnson, was translated into Italian and sung by the Italian army as they marched into battle During World War I.

Mother, shed no mournful tears,

But gird me on my sword;

And give no utterance to thy fears,

But bless me with thy word.

The lines are drawn! The fight is on!

A cause is to be won!

Mother, look not so white and wan;

Give Godspeed to thy son.

Now let thine eyes my way pursue

Where’er my footsteps fare;

And when they lead beyond thy view,

Send after me a prayer.

But pray not to defend from harm,

Nor danger to dispel;

Pray, rather, that with steadfast arm

I fight the battle well.

Pray, mother of mine, that I always keep

My heart and purpose strong,

My sword unsullied and ready to leap

Unsheathed against the wrong.

While Dvořák’s Symphony no. 9 in in E minor, “From the New World,” was not actually based on spirituals, the famous second movement largo sounded like a spiritual, and later “became” a sort of spiritual in the popular imagination.

Dvořák’s great success in America inspired other composers to take advantage of “Negro melodies.” In the early years of the twentieth century, white American and European composers came out with pieces with such titles as “Negro Folk Symphony” (William Dawson), “Rapsodie nègre” (French composer Francis Poulenc), and “Negro Suite” (Danish composer Thorvald Otterstrom).

The question one might ask about these composers and their work is: were they writing these pieces in a spirit of fellowship? or one of exploitation?

One of the strangest and most egregious examples of a white composer writing in the black style is John Powell’s “Rhapsodie Nègre.”

John Powell was a Virginia-born, Vienna-trained pianist and composer who promoted American folk music. He was also a white supremacist who helped to draft Viriginia’s “Racial Integrity Act,” also known as the “one-drop rule” — which legally classified anyone with any amount of African ancestry as black, and hence subject to Jim Crow.

John_Powell_at_piano_in_1916

As a music historian with a particular interest in these things, it’s hard not to view Senator Warren’s insistence on an Indian identity, based on her DNA test results, as (unintentionally) evocative of the efforts and beliefs of figures like John Powell.

And what about this? In 2013, an Afrofunk band, Shokazoba, was booked to play at the elite Hampshire College in western Massachusetts. The gig was cancelled, however, when it was found out that many of the band members were white.

This is a fascinating story about a black woman whose DNA test revealed many hidden truths about her identity.

What is identity? How is it expressed in music? How should it be expressed?

Authenticity (part IV: Black Metal)

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Read “The Unexpected Rise of Zeal and Ardor’s Spiritual Black Metal Blues.” and listen to the embedded audio.

Listen to the song “Row, Row,” from his album Devil is Fine:

Listen to Furry Lewis’s “Furry’s Blues”:

The lyrics:

I believe I’ll buy me a graveyard of my own
Believe I’ll buy me a graveyard of my own
I’m gonna kill everybody that have done me wrong

If you wanna go to Nashville, mens, ain’t got no fare
Wanna go to Nashville, mens, ain’t got no fare
Cut your good girl’s throat and the judge will send you there

I’m gonna get my pistol, forty rounds of ball
Get my pistol, forty rounds of ball
I’m gonna shoot my woman just to see her fall

I’d rather hear the screws on my coffin sound
I’d rather hear the screws on my coffin sound
Then to hear my good girl says, “I’m jumpin’ down”

Get my pencil and paper, I’m gonna sit right down
Get my pencil and paper, I’m gonna sit right down
I’m gonna write me a letter back to Youngstown

This ain’t my home, I ain’t got no right to stay
This ain’t my home, I ain’t got no right to stay
This ain’t my home, must be my stoppin’ place

When I left my home, you would not let me be
When I left my home, you would not let me be
Wouldn’t rest content until I come to Tennessee

Listen to this:

What forms of African-American music does Zeal & Ardor draw upon? What forms of white music?

Is this appropriation? Is it borrowing? Is it a cross-cultural encounter?

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.

georgegrella1

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?

Traditional African Music Forms

maurice

Saint Maurice, patron saint of soldiers.

Here are some examples of what African music from the earliest days of cross-Atlantic cultural encounters might have sounded like.

When we talk about traditional African folk music, we have to qualify what we mean by “traditional.” Seventeenth-century west African dances, like the Pandulungu, Guandu, or Cubango from Angola, have been lost. Most of the folk music that is most directly tied to African traditions from the days before the Atlantic slave trade can be found in its most undiluted forms in South and Central America and the West Indies, such as this invocation to the ancestors of the Maroon people of Jamaica.

These African traditions were inexorably changed by the cross-cultural encounters brought about by the slave trade.

The bomba, a traditional musical style of Puerto Rico, owes much to west African drumming, and was first documented in the early sixteenth century. It’s a call-and-response challenge between the dancers and the drummers, with the dancer leading and the drummers responding.

Another Puerto Rican dance form, originally from Angola:

Afro-Colombian traditional music incorporates the marimba:

More traditional Afro-Colombian music:

Three African-American/Afro-Caribbean fiddle tunes transcribed in the eighteenth century, played on a replica of a homemade slave fiddle.

Even in Congo Square, the music played by enslaved African-Americans had already been changed by its translation from the coast of Africa to the West Indies and to the American mainland.

The history of African music is, in a sense, a history of loss.

For more images of blacks in medieval and Renaissance Europe, go here.

Fare Thee Well

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dink2

In his memoirs, John Lomax described collecting “Dink’s Song” in Texas in 1904, at a work-camp for skilled black builders from Mississippi who were constructing a levee on the Brazos River. Dink was one of a group of women imported from Memphis by the camp overseers to keep the workers happy and discourage them from drinking and fighting on Saturday nights. As Lomax writes in his 1934 anthology American Ballads and Folk Songs:

It was not long before every man had a woman in his tent to wash his clothes, cook, draw water, cut firewood, and warm his bed. Dink was one of these women.

In Adventures of a Ballad Hunter, Lomax fleshes out his narrative:

I found Dink scrubbing her man’s clothes in the shade of their tent across the Brazos River in Texas. . . But Dink, reputedly the best singer in the camp, would give me no songs. “Today ain’t my singin’ day,” she would reply to my urging. Finally a bottle of gin, bought at a nearby plantation commissary, loosed her muse. The bottle of gin soon disappeared. She sang, as she scrubbed her man’s dirty clothes, the pathetic story of a woman deserted by her man when she needs him most — a very old story . . . While Dink sang this song . . . as she washed her temporary man’s clothes, her little two-year-old nameless son played in the sand at her feet. “He ain’t got no daddy, and I ain’t had time to hunt up a name for him,” she explained.

Lomax wrote elsewhere of Dink’s song:

The original Edison record of “Dink’s Song” was broken long ago, but not until all the Lomax family had learned the tune. The one-line refrain, as Dink sang it in her soft lovely voice, gave the effect of a sobbing woman, deserted by her man. Dink’s tune is really lost; what is left is only a shadow of the tender, tragic beauty of what she sang in the sordid, bleak surroundings of a Brazos Bottom levee camp.

Lomax published the music and lyrics of “Dink’s Song” in American Ballads and Folk Songs. He suggested that the song was an African-American variant of the white Tennessee mountain ballad “Careless Love,” whose lyrics are almost identical (the lyrics about wearing one’s apron low, and then high, refer to out-of-wedlock pregnancy).

The repetition of the statement “fare thee well” can be found in many English ballads, going back at least to the eighteenth century.

Some examples:

The phrase “Fare you well” is also reminiscent of certain spirituals — like this one, recorded in 1937:

The earliest-known recording of “Dink’s Song” is sung by the white actress Libby Holman, with the accompaniment of the black guitarist Josh White:

During the folk revival of the 1950s and 1960s, “Dink’s Song” became a staple of the repertoires of (primarily white) folksingers, who mined the past for the authenticity they found in old ballads.

“Dink’s Song” was also featured in the 2013 film Inside Llewyn Davis, with actor Oscar Isaac doing his own singing and guitar playing:

“Careless Love” sung by Tennessee folksinger Jean Ritchie:

Sung by Leadbelly:

Sung by Indian musician Arko Mukhaerjee and his band, Fiddler’s Green:

The blues singer and guitarist Gene Campbell — another “blues ghost,” about whom nothing is known except his surviving 78s — referred to the levee-camp practice of women setting up their own tents to wash the men’s clothes and sell sex in “Levee Camp Man Blues” (1930):

Men on the levee hollerin’, “Whoa” and “Gee”/And the women on the levee camp, hollerin’, “Who wants me?”

Tracing the Sources

[Content warning: racist language and imagery in original sources.]

AmericanFolkSongsForChildren

In the 1940s, the American composer Ruth Crawford Seeger, also a folklorist and musicologist, published a collection of American children’s folksongs she had compiled. One of the numbers in this volume of 43 songs is “Such a Getting Upstairs.” This singer asserts that it is a “going-up-to-bed-song” from Indiana.

Ruth Crawford Seeger said of it:

It is the refrain of a play-party tune whose second section can be whistled or hummed or played, or sung with varying words like the following from Virginia: Some love coffee, some love tea, But I love the pretty girl that winks at me.

Indeed, another source cites “Getting Upstairs” as a Virginia song. The musician and folklorist Alan Jabbour describes it thus:

“Such a Getting Upstairs” is well-documented as a Virginia tune, appearing in Knauff’s Virginia Reels, vol. 4, #4 “Sich a Gittin Up Stars: Varied” and in Wilkinson, “Virginia Dance Tunes,” p. 4, played by James S. Chisholm of Greenwood, Virginia. Another nineteenth-century print set is Howe’s School for the Violin, p. 43. The tune seems to be akin to a tune in children’s song and play-party tradition (“This Old Man”).

Jabbour recorded Appalachian fiddler Henry Reed playing the song in 1967. Listen here:

https://www.loc.gov/item/afcreed000244/?embed=resources

However, the tune is also known in England.

The first edition of Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians claims that the song was in fact a “plantation lyric,” brought to England in the 1830s by minstrel groups.

Indeed, the sheet music, published in 1837, presents the song as a narrative of black violence.

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The song was even included in the 1942 book Songs of the Rivers of America as a song about the Susquehanna River (the river on which Binghamton is situated).

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This genre of minstrel songs, which took as their subject the violence of black men, were usually performed by heavy-set white women known as “coon shouters.” These singers not only crossed color boundaries in their performances, but also gender boundaries. Typically, such songs were written from the point of view of a black male protagonist, often referred to as a “bully” and depicted carrying a razor. Coon shouters delivered the music and the lyrics (written in Tin Pan Alley’s notion of African-American Vernacular English) in stentorian tones, taking the part of black men in their portrayals and sanitizing black maleness for white audiences.

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One of the premiere singers of this genre was Canadian-born May Irwin (1862-1938).

Indeed, in his preface to The Book of American Negro Poetry, James Weldon Johnson (best-known today for writing the poem “Lift Ev’ry Voice And Sing”), noted of the “Bully Song, which made Irwin rich:

Some of these earliest [ragtime] songs were taken down by white men, the words slightly altered or changed, and published under the names of the arrangers. They sprang into immediate popularity and earned small fortunes. The first to become widely known was “The Bully,” a levee song which had been long used by [black] roustabouts along the Mississippi. It was introduced in New York by Miss May Irwin, and gained instant popularity.  

Karl Hagstrom Miller writes in Segregating Sound: Inventing Folk and Pop Music in the Age of Jim Crow:

Newspaper critics went to lengths to call attention to Irwin’s . . . large body . . .”There are people who object to Mis Irwin as coarse, but that is a quality which she shares with many big, strong and natural things.” By inhabiting the “coarse” images of coon songs, Irwin transformed what many critics understood as her excessive, unrestrained body into a symbol of female strength and authenticity. . . White female artists such as . . . Irwin used coon songs to upset prevailing gender norms, exert their own personalities and sexuality, and expand the representation of women on New York Stages. They depended on the controversial violence and extreme racial stereotypes of 1890s coon songs to pull this off. These images remained dangerous, because many white listeners imagined them to be accurate depictions of black people. . . .White coon shouters converted the scandals of the coon song to serve their own ends, gaining an autonomous, even natural, voice, by perpetuating grotesque stereotypes of black people. 

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Before we assume that a folk song is something as innocent as a children’s going-to-bed song, we often need to examine it more closely.

Authenticity, part II: Living Music Inspired by Ghosts

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When you hear a musical recording that’s scratchy and distant, you might naturally assume it’s old: a relic from the early days of sound recording. But what would modern music sound like were it subject to the same limitations that musicians faced in those days? That’s the question posed by The 78 Project, which gives musicians the chance to record using 1930s technology.

I first heard about The 78 Project several years ago, and was intrigued. The project’s directors, filmmaker Alex Steyermark and music journalist/concert producer Lavinia Jones Wright, record contemporary musicians singing traditional ballads, using eighty-year-old direct-to-acetate recording technology.

The article quoted above suggests that the project is good for musicians, as it “gives [them] the chance to record using 1930s technology.”

And the project’s directors assert:

What we have found is that the film, music and feelings that result defy space and time, [creating] living music inspired by ghosts.

What do you think they mean by “living music”?

Do you think that singing into an old mic in a sub-optimal recording space, with the result a single acetate 78 record, is an endeavor that would be positive for an artist?

How do you think working on either side of the mic in this project would affect you as a musician? As a sound engineer?

The project directors see themselves as the heirs of John Lomax and his son Alan, who drove through the United States beginning in the 1920s, recording the music of rural people on farms, in churches, work camps, and prisons. The Lomaxes’ aim was  to preserve the songs in a rapidly-industrializing and -urbanizing nation, to store them up for future generations and prevent their irrevocable loss.

This is not the 78 Project’s aim; that ship sailed long ago. Most of the “old songs” have been recorded, transcribed, and catalogued at the Library of Congress. I see The 78 Project as an effort motivated by the present era’s anxiety over the loss of culture and memory. We have already mostly lost the notion of music as a tangible thing, preserved on a heavy shellac record that you can hold in your hand, for which you had to dig actual paper money or coins out of your pocket and hand to someone in order to purchase. This music had to be played on a Victrola big enough to double as a piece of furniture, and as such required dedicated, concentrated listening. You will recall that, in White Tears, the 78 records themselves take on almost talismanic properties, and the collectors gather in Chester Bly’s apartment to listen to them as if at a religious ritual.

The anxiety that I believe underlies the 78 Project is the result of having nothing substantial to hold onto. Music streamed, music in the cloud, has no touchable, physical, graspable form; you can’t hold it or possess it the way earlier generations could a 78, an LP, or a CD. It has been cleaned up, stripped down, sterilized, digitized, worked on, messed with, dirtied up, sampled, chopped and screwed, augmented. It is no longer performed by living musicians from a certain place at a certain time. It may not even be performed at all, but rather created by producers out of the bits and pieces of performed music from the past.

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It would be hard to argue that the musicians recorded by the Lomaxes long ago would not have preferred today’s technology over what they had to work with. The Lomaxes sought to preserve the old music in its purest possible form before it disappeared for good. But what makes music “pure”? Is it accurate recording technology? Is it a pristine soundproof studio? Or is it the atmospheric presence of crickets chirping in the background, screen doors swinging, and the incidental voices of children as the musician plays on his or her front porch? Can the music be separated from its origins, from its place, and still retain its meaning?

So, while The 78 Project bills itself as a “documentary and recording journey inspired by Alan Lomax and his quest to capture music where it lived throughout the early 20th century,” it seems to me that they’re coming at it backwards. Rather than going to the mountains, hollers, farms, and prisons to record the music in its “home places,” the project directors engage emerging and already-established artists to sing the “old songs” in a spot of their choosing, into a single direct-to-acetate recorder. This is a project of imitation, not one of authenticity.

The conditions of the Lomax recordings can’t be duplicated, because the old songs no longer live in their home places. The music of the mountains, farms, and prisons today is mass-produced, commercial, homogeneous, globally distributed, and essentially the same everywhere. The Lomaxes got there right on time. Their moment has passed, and no amount of Roseanne Cash singing a Tennessee ballad in her Upper West Side apartment can bring it back.

I understand the nostalgia for the past. In a certain sense, all recording is a project of nostalgia. The word “record” comes from the Latin recordare, which means “to remember.”

As Hari Kunzru notes in White Tears:

When you listen to an old record, there can be no illusion that you are present at a performance. You are listening through a gray drizzle of static, a sound like rain. You can never forget how far away you are. You always hear it, the sound of distance in time. But what is the connection between the listener and the musician? Does it matter that one of you is alive and one is dead? And which is which?

It may be that the attempt to dirty up a sound recording in these days of digital perfection is not only the quest for lost authenticity, but also a way to listen to ghosts. As Brian Seibert suggested in his review of White Tears, “A drowned or buried voice can sound more compelling [than a live, present one].” 

Authenticity (part I)

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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?

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(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.

An image from Proyect’s unpublished memoir.

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.