“Education is something [students] must labor to give themselves. . . Education is up to them as it was up to Socrates, Milton, Locke, and Lincoln.” (Mark van Doren) “Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery; none but ourselves can free our minds.” (Bob Marley)
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.
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:
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.
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?”
In the book Seems Like Murder Here: Southern Violence and the Blues Tradition, Adam Gussow devotes a chapter to Mamie Smith’s 1920 blues hit “Crazy Blues.” The song is believed to be the first blues recording ever released, and was entered into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1994. Gussow’s concern, however, is not with the song’s history, but with its subversive subject matter — the wild grief of an abandoned woman, which makes her “crazy,” leads to suicidal ideation, and finally reaches its crescendo in her stated plan to kill a police officer.
I can’t sleep at night I can’t eat a bite ‘Cause the man I love He don’t treat me right.
He makes me feel so blue I don’t know what to do Sometimes I’m sad inside And then begin to cry ‘Cause my best friend . . . said his last goodbye.
There’s a change in the ocean Change in the deep blue sea . . . but baby I tell you folks there . . . ain’t no change in me My love for that man Will always be.
Now I’ve got the crazy blues Since my baby went away I ain’t got no time to lose I must find him today Now the doctor’s gonna do all . . . that he can But what you gonna need is a undertaker man I ain’t had nothin’ but bad news Now I’ve got the crazy blues.
Now I can read his letter I sure can’t read his mind I thought he’s lovin’ me . . . He’s leavin’ all the time Now I see . . . My poor love was Iyin’.
I went to the railroad Hang my head on the track Thought about my daddy I gladly snatched it back Now my babe’s gone And gave me the sack.
Now I’ve got the crazy blues Since my baby went away I ain’t had no time to lose I must find him today I’m gonna do like a Chinaman, go and get some hop Get myself a gun, and shoot myself a cop I ain’t had nothin’ but bad news Now I’ve got the crazy blues.
In 1920 these were remarkable words for an African American singer to shout from the rooftops . . . .they supply a partial genealogy for the emergence, decades later, of NWA (“F*ck the Police”), Ice-T (“Cop Killer,” “Squeeze the Trigger”), and other beer-and-blunts-stoked gangsta rappers of the 1980s . . . . the black male lover whose absence [Mamie Smith] bemoans is associated not simply with faithlessness but with death, an inscription of his social fate in a white-policed public sphere where countless forms of “bad news” — lynching, race riots, vagrancy laws, back-alley murder — threaten to take him away for good.
“Crazy Blues” sold 75,000 copies in its first month alone, and its popularity was spread across the south when black Pullman porters set up a cottage industry of buying dozens of copies of the record for a dollar apiece in Harlem, and selling them for twice that much when their trains went down south.
Do you think “Crazy Blues” would have been so successful if it had been sung by a black man? Did Mamie Smith’s gender allowed her to express sentiments that would have been unacceptable if issued by a male singer?
It’s worth noting, too, that Smith’s threat to “do like a Chinaman . . . go and get some hop” is a drug reference — “hop” being slang for opium — as well as a racialized/racist one.
Considered purely in terms of the musical outpouring it led to, “Crazy Blues” was one of the most consequential records ever made, the first title in a regal succession of American song. Without Mamie Smith, no Bessie [Smith], no Billie [Holiday], no Ella [Fitzgerald], no Etta [James], no Diana [Ross], no Aretha [Franklin], no Whitney [Houston], no Mariah [Carey], no Janet [Jackson], no Missy [Elliot], no Beyoncé.
In 1924, the blues singer Josie Miles recorded another song about the urge to commit murder and mayhem, not specifically against the police, but perhaps against the violent injustice of society as a whole.
Wanna set the world on fire That is my one mad desire I’m a devil in disguise Got murder in my eyes
Now I could see blood runnin’ Through the streets Now I could see blood runnin’ Through the streets Could be everybody Layin’ dead right at my feet
Now man who invented war Sure is my friend The man invented war Sure is my friend Don’t believe that I’m sinkin’ Just look what a hole I am in
Give me gunpowder Give me dynamite Give me gunpowder Give me dynamite Yes I’d wreck the city Wanna blow it up tonight
I took my big Winchester Down off the shelf I took my big Winchester Down off the shelf When I get through shootin’ There won’t be nobody left
Josie Miles’s “mad mama” is certainly “mad” in the sense of insanity, but she is also “mad” in the sense of an overwhelming, righteous anger.
Lest it seem like these early musical-homicidal intentions went underground until gangsta rap, check out Gil Scott Heron’s 1981 cover of Marvin Gaye’s 1971 hit “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler).” While Gaye’s song is a despairing, if non-specific, cry against social injustice, Heron turns his spoken-word bridge into a tribute to the New Orleans cop-killer Mark Essex.
Heron’s spoken-word bridge:
Did you ever hear about Mark Essex and the things that made him choose to fight the inner city blues Yeah, Essex took to the rooftops guerilla style and watched while all the crackers went wild Brought in 600 troops, brand new I hear, to see them crushed with fear Essex fought back with a thousand rounds and New Orleans was a changing town Rat a tat tat tat was the only sound, yeah Bring on the stone rifles to knock down walls Bring on the elephant guns Bring on the helicopters to block out the sun Yeah, made the devil wanna holler cause 8 was dead and a dozen was down Cries for freedom were a brand new sound New York, Chicago, Frisco, LA Justice was served and the unjust were afraid