It is only music that matters. But to talk of music is risky, and entails responsibility. Therefore some find it preferable to seize on side issues. It is easy, and enables you to pass as a deep thinker. (Igor Stravinsky)
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,
Minstrel shows, known as “Ethiopian minstrelsy,” 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,” included two minstrel songs — “Swanee River” and “Old Black Joe,” both by white composer Stephen Foster — in his explanation of the development of black American music, which suggests that the racial encounters of the minstrel show were more complex than they appear at first glance.
What is more, there were also 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:
Du Bois believed that there were ten “master songs” of the African diaspora to America, and he prefaced each chapter of the book with a quotation of musical notation from a spiritual. In the last chapter, “The Sorrow Songs,” Du Bois discusses each of the musical excerpts, and makes the case that the music of black Americans contains a power that transcends the social and economic condition of the practitioners of that music.
Du Bois also suggests in this essay that black music can’t really be notated or transcribed, that its essence prevents its being noted down accurately — that, in other words, the soul of the music cannot be measured or contained by the signs and symbols of sounds. He also attempts to transcribe his impression of a west African language, though the language and the meaning of the words have not yet been identified.
Old Black Joe (also by Foster, sung by Paul Robeson):
No recording, but sheet music for the quotation:
Dere’s no rain to wet you, Here’s no sun to burn you, Oh, push along, believer, I want to go home.
Keep Me From Sinking Down (Robert Sims):
Poor Rosy (William Appling Singers)
The German folksong Du Bois quotes, “Jetzt geh’ i’ an’s brunele, trink’ aber net” (Now I go to the title well, but I don’t drink):
There’s a Little Wheel a-Turning in My Heart (Edna Thomas):
Michael Row the Boat Ashore (Marion Williams):
Incidentally, Du Bois’s second wife, Shirley Graham Du Bois, was a composer and musicologist. She wrote an opera called Tom Tom: An Epic of Music and the Negro, about the African diaspora, which premiered in Cleveland in 1932. Unfortunately, none of her music has been recorded.
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.
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?”
The sound of the French horn provides one of the most emblematically Romantic timbres in nineteenth-century music. Why is that?
The French horn derives its origin from the hunting horn (in German, waldhorn or forest horn) — a brass instrument played while hunting on horseback to call back the hounds from the hunt.
Some horns, like the alphorn, were used in mountain regions to communicate and signal across vast distances.
And horns were used in the Middle Ages to call troops to battle.
So the sound of the horn is associated with the pastoral, with nature, and with the simple folk, peasants and hunters, people steeped in forestcraft and woodlore, men and women who are close to the land, and also with centuries past. The idea that the simple folk are the inheritors of a unique knowledge and wisdom is an important Romantic trope, part of the culture of resistance to the advancing technological specialization and industrialization of the age.
The nineteenth-century Männerchor (men’s chorus) was meant to imitate the sonic ambience of the woodland horn, and to evoke a feeling of the pastoral and the out-of-doors.
Brahms wrote his Four Songs for women’s choir, harp, and two horns — including the “Song from Fingal” — to evoke both folk music and a sense of nostalgia for the past: the first song is self-referential, about the effect of hearing a harp played in the landscape; the second song is a setting of “Come away, death” from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night; the third song is about a gardener who loves a lady in vain, and anticipates his death from grief; and the fourth is a setting of a German translation of the Ossian verses.
Years later, Brahms would return to the pastoral sound of the horn to open his second piano concert on B-flat Major, op. 83. As Bill McGlaughlin has observed, this is more than music: it is a landscape in sound; the horn almost seems to call out of the mists, as if from one mountaintop to another.
And of course you remember Beethoven’s horns in his Symphony no. 3. What does Beethoven intend his horns to mean?
The musical forms brought to the Americas by slaves from west Africa were generally functional: that is, they were used to aid in ritual, work, daily life, and war. Antiphonal singing also facilitated communication across distances.
You can hear the antiphonal quality in this work song of the Mbuti people (Congo).
A Hausa call-and-response:
Maasai schoolgirls in Kenya.
In the 1964 film Zulu, about the 1879 battle of Rorke’s Drift in Zululand (present-day South Africa), the use of antiphonal music in war is highlighted. The Zulus use music to prepare for war, to intimidate the enemy, to wage war, and, in the end, in a moving scene, to salute the victors.
What do you think the purpose of call-and-response form is in religious music?
Call and response in the spiritual “Job, Job.”
Call and response in a work camp song.
Call and response in a prison work song.
In August Wilson’s 1987 play The Piano Lesson, a character speaks of his stint in Parchman and sings a work song.
August Wilson was inspired to write his play, set in 1936, by this painting, “The Piano Lesson,” by Romare Bearden (1911-1988).
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?