“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.
[Trigger/content warnings: Blackface minstrelsy, racist imagery, racist language, and racist depictions of African-Americans in the linked audio of minstrel songs.]
In 1768, English playwright Isaac Bickerstaffe and Charles Dibdin — librettist and composer, respectively — presented their comic opera The Padlock at London’s Drury Lane Theatre. Dibdin portrayed the role of Mungo, a black slave from the West Indies, and his aria “Dear Heart! What a Terrible Life I am Led” became a popular hit. The song, though a lament, was an up-tempo, marked allegro.
In the late eighteenth century, “Dear Heart” and a number of other “Negro songs” were published in American song collections. These songs were meant to be sung by white singers “in character” — i.e., in blackface makeup and tattered clothing — but their texts were in general sympathetic to the plight of the enslaved. For instance, “The Desponding Negro” tells the story of an African caught and transported in the Middle Passage:
And “Poor Black Boy (I Sold a Guiltless Negro Boy),” from another English comic opera called The Prize (libretto by Prince Hoare, music by Stephen Storace, whose sister Nancy was the celebrated soprano who created the role of Susanna in Mozart’s Le nozzle di Figaro), is sung from the perspective of a repentant white slave-dealer.
In the early nineteenth century, however, white entertainers in the United States began to produce comic songs for the concert and stage, in which blacks were treated as figures of ridicule and contempt. The so-called “Father of American Minstrelsy,” Thomas Dartmouth Rice, apparently was inspired to create the genre when he came upon a disabled black stable-hand who, as he worked,
When Childish Gambino’s “This is America” dropped last year, some critics saw the pose he struck in the video when he shot the guitar player as a reference to minstrelsy.
Minstrel shows, or “Ethiopian minstrelsy,” as the genre was called, became wildly popular in the big cities of the new nation. The white dancers and singers in blackface accompanied themselves with “Ethiopian instruments” — the fiddle, the banjo, the tambourine, and the “bones.” The typical minstrel show
In spite of the fact that such entertainments were flagrantly racist, some scholars of minstrelsy have theorized that white audiences might also have been attracted to minstrelsy’s connection to black culture, however degraded the minstrels’ version of black culture may have been. In his book Love & Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class, Eric Lott suggests that
Recall, too, that W.E.B. Du Bois, in his essay “The Sorrow Songs,” which you read earlier in the semester, included two minstrel songs — “Swanee River” and “Old Black Joe,” both by white composer Stephen Foster — in his historiography of black American music, which suggests that the cross-racial encounters of the minstrel show were more complex than they may appear.
There were even all-black minstrel troops, who nevertheless still “blacked up” for their performances. Interestingly, black minstrel shows were very popular among black audiences in the northern cities. Can you think of some reasons why that might have been?
[Shocked] is using the album to argue that blacks and whites who performed in blackface in the 1800s, imitating what they believed to be authentic black culture, are the founders of today’s popular music. Musicians who do not acknowledge this tradition are exploiting it, she says.
In particular, Shocked focuses on bluegrass, a style commonly believed to have been invented by Bill Monroe . . . she says Monroe learned the basis for bluegrass from a black fiddle player named Arnold Schultz.
”There is a very common misconception about this music that, say, it comes from Celtic influences-say, Irish music-and that it was brought over to this country and maybe it went through the Appalachians and Kentucky and became Americanized, and now let`s call it bluegrass or mountain music,” Shocked says.
‘‘But you can tell a story a hundred different ways. The way I`m trying to tell the story is that this music was as much a black invention as a white one, but that the black part of the history has been written out.”
This is certainly true (see this post). But it’s still more than a little unsettling to hear Michelle Shocked sing these words:
Jump Jim Crow. Jump Jim Crow How do you, do you walk so slow Like a little red rooster with one trick leg Looks like you the one laying the egg I don’t know when but it’ll be real soon Going down the road by the light of the moon Going to the city to see Zip Coon
Hip Zip Coon you sure look slick How do you do that walking trick You got a woman on your left A woman on your right You all dressed up like a Saturday night Strolling down the street, feeling fine Tipping your hat, saying “Howdy, Shine” If I knew your secret I would make it mine
Tarbaby, Tarbaby, tell me true Who is really the jigaboo? Is it the white man, the white talking that jive Or the black man, the black, trying to stay alive? You can’t touch a tarbaby, everybody knows Smiling all the while wit de bone in de nose That’s the way the story goes
Perhaps Shocked’s efforts are an example of love and theft, like Joni Mitchell’s forays into blackface:
Blackface has been in the news lately. The governor of Virginia (the capital of the Confederate States of America during the Civil War) has faced pressure to step down when it was revealed that he appeared in blackface in his medical school yearbook from the 1980s, along with a classmate dressed as a klansman.
The design brand Gucci became the subject of controversy for introducing a black sweater/ski mask that mimics the exaggerated makeup of blackface.
White Instagram models have been slammed for striving to appear black.
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?”
Was what Reményi did cultural appropriation, since in reality he was Jewish, not Roma, and was born Eduard Hoffmann?
This is a Romani instrument called a cimbalom.
In his Hungarian Rhapsody no. 11, Franz Liszt directed the pianist to play “quasi un zimbalo” — like a cimbalom.
In fact, Liszt, though famously a Hungarian, who declared, “I remain from birth to the grave, in heart and mind, a Magyar,” was unable to speak the Hungarian language (he spoke German, French, and Italian).
Was Liszt engaged in cultural appropriation by composing in the style of a Romani instrument?
On July 5, The Nation, a left-leaning magazine of politics and culture founded in 1865, published a poem on its website called “How-To.” The poem, a sly (and cynical) critique 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 contributions. The punch-line: it’s all about making donors feel good about themselves, further marginalizing the presumably black, possibly sick, and perhaps disabled beggar:
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:
The backlash inspired The Nation’s poetry editors to publish an apology, claiming that they had
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:
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? (Incidentally, this is a topic we discuss in Music 101 and Music 111: see here,here and here.)
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.
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”?
The earliest-known published book of African-American music, the 1867 Slave Songs of the United States, is primarily devoted to the religious vocal music of the slaves of the eastern seaboard. However, there are several songs at the end that are of a very different nature. These songs are in French and were collected in Louisiana, and they are dance songs.
The editors say of these songs that:
The language, evidently a rude corruption of French, is that spoken by the negroes in that part of the State [Louisiana]; and it is said that it is more difficult for persons who speak French to interpret this dialect, than for those who speak English to understand the most corrupt of the ordinary negro-folk [dialect]. . . . The “calinda” was a sort of contra-dance, which has now passed entirely out of use.
Or has it? This is what it sounds like:
Louisiana planters imported slaves from the Caribbean, and it is believed that the Calinda was one of the dances performed by slaves in Congo Square in New Orleans on Saturday nights. It is still danced and played in Trinidad and Tobago, where it is also related to an Afro-Carribean form of martial arts called Kalinda.
The Trinidadian calinda performed above seems to be related, both lyrically and musically, to this sea shanty:
The calinda is mentioned in the story “La Belle Zoraide” by the nineteenth-century New Orleans-based novelist Kate Chopin.
“La Belle Zoraide” is a story about the horrors of family separation in slavery, and about the hierarchy of color in Louisiana — which is told in part in the Creole language (referred to in Slave Songs of the United States as “evidently a rude corruption of French”). Read it here.
The traditional Cajun song “Allons danser Colinda” (Let’s dance, Colinda) was also influenced by the Afro-Carribean Calinda. Cajuns are a mostly white, French-speaking ethnic group that settled Louisiana after being expelled from Canada by the British in the eighteenth century.
The calinda even shows up in the work of English composer Frederick Delius (1862-1934). While Delius is best known as a composer of English “pastoral” music, he managed an orange plantation in Florida briefly in the 1880s, where he heard and was influenced by African-American music. In 1904, he wrote an opera called Koanga, a tragic love story about slavery in the eighteenth century. This is Delius’s version of the calinda.
In a kind of full circle, Koanga was performed in Trinidad in 1995.
For more on Slave Songs of the United States and the earliest attempts at American ethnomusicology, watch this brief film.
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.
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
[Content warning: racist language and imagery in original sources.]
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:
Indeed, the sheet music, published in 1837, presents the song as a narrative of black violence.
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).
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.
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:
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.
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.”
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].”