X, UnNaming, and the Cowboy Blues

This song dropped just as school was ending last semester.

Of course, I loved it. But, because I’m old and grumpy, I started thinking about and analyzing the nom de rap chosen by Montero Lamar Hill.

“Lil” like Lil Wayne, or like so many other rap artists?

“Nas” like . . . Nas?

“X” like DMX?

Or even Malcolm X?

Apparently not.

Again, because I’m old and grumpy, I started grumbling (in my mind, anyway) about how Words (and especially Names) Mean Things.

Here, Malcolm X — the unintended namesake of Lil Nas X — explains the meaning of his adopted last name.

In other words, Malcolm Little chose “X” as a symbol of the unnaming of his ancestors, who were stolen into slavery. If words have meaning, letters do as well, and X, used in this context, is particularly powerful. So powerful, in fact, that even such luminaries as Spike Lee have attempted to profit from that letter of the alphabet.

As Larry Depte, the spokesman for the (short-lived) X-brand Potato Chips, explained in 1992:

“X is a concept.” On each bag of the chips is printed the legend: “X stands for the unknown. The unknown language, religion, ancestors and cultures of the African American. X is a replacement for the last name given to the slaves by the slave master. We dedicate this product to the concept of X.”

“We’re not trying to market anybody’s name or likeness,” Mr. Depte said. “Ninety-five percent of African-Americans don’t know their original names and cultures. Most people don’t know this. X remains unknown, even though it stands for the unknown.”

Indeed, Lee even sought to trademark the letter “X” (read the linked article, “Who Owns X?” for more).

I looked hard for a photo of those potato chips but couldn’t find one. They existed before smart phones. But this will give you some idea of what was going down back in the day.

In the meantime, on a summer road trip, my children and I listened to an audiobook of A Wind in the Door, the second book in the fantasy/scifi YA series by Madeleine L’Engle known as the “Time Quartet” (the first is A Wrinkle in Time). The theme of Naming is prominent in the book: The human protagonists are assisted by an angel, who is also responsible for naming all the stars in the universe. The bad guys in the novel are known as Echthroi, the plural of the Greek echthros, meaning “The Enemy” (Ἐχθρός). The Echthroi’s destructive power comes from unNaming — Xing out their victims, turning them into nothing.

Names have power, in other words.

Azie and Evelyn of Say It Loud delve into the fascinating history of “black-sounding” names.

In “Old Town Road,” Lil Nas X also draws on the symbolism of the black cowboy. It’s a little-known fact that roughly one out of every four cowboys in the late nineteenth century was black. As Irwin Silber notes, “Many an emancipated Negro decided to try his luck in the west.”

The music of the African-American cowboys had a lasting influence on cowboy ballads in general; in fact, “Home on the Range” was collected by John Lomax from a black trail cook.

Read “Cowboy Blues: Early Black Music in the West.”

Don Flemons, one of the founders of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, sings “Home on the Range” and other black cowboy songs on a recording he made in 2018 for the Smithsonian National Museum of African-American History and Culture.

In John Lomax’s article “Sinful Songs of the Southern Negro,” in your course reading packet, the folklorist mentions collecting some “cowboy songs” from black informants in a South Carolina prison, including “Streets of Laredo”:

And “The Old Chisolm Trail”:

As sung by Don Flemons:

Love and Theft, redux: “That’s Why Darkies Were Born”

Content warning: racist language/imagery.

UNSPECIFIED – CIRCA 1970: Photo of Kate Smith Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

You may know that the Yankees have #cancelled their tradition of playing Kate Smith’s stentorian recording of “God Bless America” during the seventh-inning stretch.

Taking their cue from New York, the NHL team the Philadelphia Flyers not only #cancelled Kate Smith, but also covered (and later removed) a statue of her outside of the XFinity Live auditorium.

The reason is that in 1931, Smith recorded a song called “That’s Why Darkies Were Born,” which includes these lyrics:

Someone had to pick the cotton,
Someone had to plant the corn,
Someone had to slave and be able to sing,
That’s why darkies were born;
Someone had to laugh at trouble,
Though he was tired and worn,
Had to be contented with any old thing,
That’s why darkies were born;
Sing, sing, sing when you’re weary
and Sing when you’re blue,
Sing, sing, that’s what you taught
All the white folks to do;
Someone had to fight the Devil,
Shout about Gabriel’s Horn,
Someone had to stoke the train
That would bring God’s children to green pastures,
That’s why darkies were born.

It’s worth noting that, both in her appearance and in her singing style, Kate Smith followed in the tradition of the popular “coon shouters,” like May Irwin, of a decade or two earlier.

Though they’re not what you would call great literature, the lyrics of “That’s Why Darkies Were Born” are fascinating, and worth unpacking.

First of all, they express a kind of ironic fatalism — “Someone HAD TO slave” — which can be read both as an acceptance of slavery as an institution, and also as a kind of meta-musical justification for it, because “someone” also “HAD TO . . . be able to sing.” According to the lyrics, slavery, and the music that it generated, make up a sort of self-fulfilling binary system.

Secondly, the statement that “someone had to” do these things implies that the logic and necessity of slavery are so obvious that they shouldn’t even have to be mentioned. Even the most fire-eating of pro-slavery apologists in the antebellum South knew they had to work to justify their position.

And finally, there is the concluding assertion that “someone” had to be able to sing. What does this mean?

Here the lyricist, Lew Brown, suggests the “Magical Negro” trope: the longstanding theme in American literature and film that blacks (and people of color more broadly) are salvific, i.e., both capable of, and necessary, to the spiritual redemption of whites. “Someone had to stoke the train/That would bring God’s children to green pastures” is a reference to the many appearances of metaphorical trains, “bound for glory” — in other words, for heaven — in gospel music.

Of course, pro-slavery whites accepted and advanced the idea that “someone had to” be enslaved. But they believed slavery was necessary for their economic and social institutions, not for their spiritual redemption. Pro-slavery apologists in the antebellum South often framed their support for the owning of other people in terms of the duty to “civilize” and protect the slaves, who, they claimed, were so childlike as to be unable to live free.

Is it possible, therefore, that Lew Brown’s lyrics actually invert pro-slavery arguments?

The “meta-musical” aspect of the song is in the fact that it is ABOUT music, and, therefore, is self-referential. And it’s not just about music in general; it’s specifically about the folk music sung by American slaves. What’s more, the lyrics emphasize that the music sung by slaves is the vehicle for whites’ salvation: “Darkies were born,” it’s implied, because whites needed their souls to be saved. Is this an indictment of slavery? Is it an acceptance of it? Do the lyrics go even further and suggest that slavery itself was necessary for whites’ redemption?

Is this an example of “love and theft”?

The great Paul Robeson also recorded the song in 1931.


How does Paul Robeson’s version of the song differ from Kate Smith’s? Does Robeson’s singing express irony? Does it express what John Lomax called “self-pity”? Does it express pride? Does it express rebellion?

As Yuval Taylor and Jake Austen observe about Paul Robeson’s recording:

Robeson sang it with just as much earnestness and dignity as he put into the well-known spiritual “Go Down Moses.” . . . How can we explain this? At the time, Robeson was outspoken in his declarations of racial pride. He espoused sympathy for southern blacks, who, under the systems of sharecropping and peonage, were still essentially enslaved. He had strong communist sympathies, which he did not keep hidden, that were a result, in part, of his rage at how white Americans treated blacks. Yet here he was singing songs that seemed to defend the continued oppression of his race. . .

[Nevertheless, according to music historian Will Friedwald,] “That’s Why Darkies Were Born” “presented the black man in a way that the multiethnic Tin Pan Alley could relate to — casting the ‘colored’ race in the same role as the Jews in the Old Testament. To take up the black man’s burden meant to shoulder both the suffering and the moral and religious obligations of the rest of the world” . . .

Perhaps “That’s Why Darkies Were Born,” then, can be read not as a justification of slavery but as a portrait of blacks as Christ-like — they suffer, they endure, and they will eventually save the world. The song’s last line is “Someone had to stoke the train that would bring God’s children to green pastures.”

Why do you think Robeson recorded this song?

Do you think the PR teams for the Yankees and the Fliers were right to #cancel Kate Smith’s recording of “God Bless America” on the basis of her also having recorded it?

A similarly racist song of the early 1930s, “Underneath the Harlem Moon,” by white Tin Pan Alley songwriter Mack Gordon, also sentimentalizes southern plantation life, applying the tropes of happy, carefree, music-loving “darkies” to sophisticated black urbanites in Harlem, with such lyrics as:

Creole babies walk along with rhythm in their thighs,
            Rhythm in their feet and in their lips and in their eyes.
            Where do high-browns find the kind of love that satisfies?
            Underneath the Harlem moon.

            There’s no fields of cotton, pickin’ cotton is taboo;
            They don’t live in cabins like old folks used to do:
            Their cabin is a penthouse up on Lenox Avenue,
            Underneath the Harlem moon.

In a short 1933 film called Rufus Jones for President, the actress and singer Ethel Waters gives an updated version to an assembly of black U.S. senators. (Listen for the lines about drinking gin and puffing “reefers.”) Waters makes some sly references to “That’s Why Darkies Were Born” with the lines “that’s why we shvartses [Yiddish for blacks] were born,” and “that’s how house rent parties were born.”

 Here’s Rhiannon Giddens singing it:

What does Rhiannon Giddens do differently from Ethel Waters? How does she play with the meaning of the song? Is she signifying? Is Ethel Waters?

P.S. Your humble professor was interviewed about these issues on radio station WDEL-FM in Delaware. Listen to that interview here.

Roll and Tumble

White Tears begins with an epigraph:

I rolled and I tumbled
Cried the whole night long
Woke up this morning
I didn’t know right from wrong

The earliest recorded version of these lyrics are from Hambone Willie Newbern’s “Roll and Tumble Blues,” on a 1929 Okeh Records 78.

Alan Lomax recorded Delta blueswoman Rosa Lee Hill singing a country blues version in 1959, but her musical style suggests a time decades earlier.

Muddy Waters, the Father of the Chicago Blues, recorded the song for Chess Records in 1950.

Waters later rewrote the song as “Louisiana Blues.”

In 1966, the British rock band Cream, with a young Eric Clapton on guitar, recorded the song as “Rollin’ and Tumblin.'”

The 1960s rock band Canned Heat performed it at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival. It’s worth noting that the band’s name comes from the Prohibition-era practice among the poor of straining Sterno, a fuel used in chafing dishes, through a sock, and drinking it to get drunk. The resulting drink was not only addictive but also toxic.

A 1915 ad for Sterno.

This deadly addiction was the subject of Delta bluesman Tommy Johnson’s 1928 song “Canned Heat Blues,” which Seth plays for Leonie on page 86-87 of White Tears.

Bob Dylan recorded a version of “Rollin’ and Tumblin'” in 2006.

Jeff Beck and Imogen Heap recorded a live version in 2007.

Why did Hari Kunzru use these lyrics as an epigraph to introduce his novel?

What are the implications for the individual bluesman and for society of “not knowing right from wrong”?

Authenticity, part V: Tribute or Appropriation?

As John Lomax was the first to record Lead Belly, so Alan Lomax was the first to record Muddy Waters.

Muddy Waters (1915-1983) was born McKinley Morganfield, the son of sharecroppers, near Clarksdale, Mississippi, also the homeplace of blues greats Son House and Robert Johnson. He moved to Chicago as part of the Great Migration in 1943, where he became a highly-influential, internationally famous blues musician, one of the first to use electric guitar.

The first song Waters recorded with Lomax was “Country Blues.” Note the extreme rhythmic freedom of Waters’s style, which Alan Lomax called “patently African.”

Waters’s 1950 song “Rollin’ Stone” provided the name of the British band, who admired him greatly.

In fact, when the Stones were on tour in the 1981 they visited the legendary Checkerboard Lounge in Chicago, where Waters was playing a club date. Waters was gracious enough to invite them up onstage with him.

More from the same evening: Waters invites bluesmen Buddy Guy and Lefty Dizz up onstage. (Mick Jagger seems to silently acknowledge that he’s out of his depth.)

A few years later, Kurt Cobain paid a similar tribute to Lead Belly by performing “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?”

Do you think that the sound of the music changes when performed by a white artist?

What about the meaning of the music? Alan Lomax called the blues:

the only song form in English that allows the singer . . . to pose problems, raise issues, make complaints, and then provide a cynical or satirical response. Musically speaking, the first phase of the blues raises a question-it often ends on a high note, leaving the problem unresolved, the question unanswered. The clinching phrase usually descends to a low note roundly concluding the matter. There are [other] such improvisatory forms [in the folk music of other cultures] . . . but there was none in English till the muleskinners and blues singers of the Delta filled the poetic gap, which none of the great poets of the English tradition had done. The blues has the magical property of allowing you to improvise a comment on life.

Is this “magical property” retained when sung by white artists?

Sylvie

negrofolk

The Lomaxes say:

[Leadbelly’s] uncle Bob Ledbetter had a wife named Silvy. In the middle of the morning, when Uncle Bob was plowing down at the lower end of the filed and the sun was hot, he would holler at Sylvy to bring him some water. After so long a time this holler developed into a little song that he would sing to his mules, when he thought about Silvy down the hill running to him with the water-bucket in her hand.

How does Harry Belafonte change the song?

The Weavers, Pete Seeger’s group, in a cocktail-ish arrangement from the 1950s:

Lonnie Donegan, a Scottish skiffle singer (skiffle was a pop form influenced by blues and other forms of African-American folk music, which was popular in the UK in the 1950s. Is this blackvoice?

The version I grew up with:

This arrangement is reminiscent of patting juba. Do you think it works?

 

Green Corn

leadbelly poster

(Poster for Gordon Parks’s 1976 film Leadbelly.)

In their 1936 book Negro Folk Songs As Sung by Lead Belly, “King of the Twelve-String Guitar Players of the World,” Long-Time Convict in the Penitentiaries of Texas and Louisiana, John Lomax and his son Alan published their transcriptions of many of the songs Leadbelly played. Of the song “Green Corn,” the Lomaxes have this to say:

Lead Belly always sings this old-fashioned air tenderly and joyfully, as if softly and pleasantly drunk on green-corn whiskey just off the mash. A feeling of spring runs through the song, the sound of sappy fodder rustling in a June wind; and each repetition of “green corn” is like a young corn sprout pushing up through the brown earth. . . “Green Corn” is an old song for square dancing and one of the first pieces that Lead Belly learned to play on the guitar — an air that probably came down to him from his slave ancestors. It is common among white fiddlers in the South.

Black writer and filmmaker Gordon Parks made a biopic film in 1976 about Leadbelly’s life and times, and included a performance of “Green Corn,” in which Leadbelly tries to outplay his romantic rival:

Here it is as a white fiddle tune:

As a banjo solo:

Here it is sung by British-born folksinger Richard Dyer-Bennett on a children’s album from the 1950s:

Pop singer Terry Dene, a sort of cut-rate English Elvis, sings it:

 

What is the Blues?

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(W.C. Handy)

The early twentieth-century white folklorist Dorothy Scarborough once interviewed the famous bandleader W.C. Handy (1873- 1958), known as the Father of the Blues, about the origin of the blues. When Scarborough asked him about the relationship of the blues to folk music, Handy replied that that the blues were folk music, pure and simple. What did he mean by this?

Handy’s first hit, “Memphis Blues,” published in 1908:

“St. Louis Blues,” from 1914:

While Handy was the first composer to publish blues songs (and one of the first African-Americans to make a living from music publishing), he openly acknowledged that his own music was influenced by the rural African-American folk music he had heard and transcribed while touring Mississippi in 1902-1905. In his memoir, Father of the Blues, Handy described sharing the stage at a dance he played with  a trio of musicians who

struck up one of those over and over strains that seem to have no beginning and certainly no ending at all. The strumming attained a disturbing monotony, but on and on it went, a kind of stuff associated with [sugar] cane rows and levee camps. Thump-thump-thump went their feet on the floor. It was not really annoying or unpleasant. Perhaps “haunting” is the better word.

Some of the songs that influenced Handy:

Alan Lomax wrote in 1948:

Child of [the] fertile [Mississippi] Delta land, voice of the voiceless black masses, the blues crept into the back windows of America maybe forty years ago and since then has colored the whole of American popular music. Hill-billy singers, hot jazz blowers, crooners like [Bing] Crosby, cowboy yodelers — all these have learned from the native folk blues. . . . the whole world can feel, uncoiling in its ear, this somber music of the Mississippi. And yet no one had ever thought to ask the makers of these songs — these ragged mister-singers — why they sang. 

Why did they sing?

In their book Our Singing Country, published in 1941, Alan Lomax and his father, John Lomax, describe the blues as a folk genre

sung by . . . unspoiled [singers] in the South, sung without the binding restrictions of conventional piano accompaniment or orchestral arrangement, [that] grow up like a wild flowering vine in the woods.

The Lomaxes, father and son, were in political conflict for their entire partnership as folksong collectors. As historian Ronald Cohen explained, “The father’s politics were considerably to the right of the son’s, yet both believed in the uniting and rejuvenating powers of folk music.” Steven Garabedian concludes that:

They were opposed politically, but they found common ground in a shared romantic idealization of an unspoiled homespun American republic. Vernacular music, they held, carried the spirit of this redemptive grassroots national culture.

The Lomaxes, working for the Library of Congress, traveled all over the southern United States from the 1930s through the 1950s, recording and transcribing folk music. They discovered Leadbelly on their first trip in 1933, and, in 1941, first recorded Muddy Waters, who was working as a tractor driver in Mississippi.

In 1946, Alan Lomax recorded three great Delta bluesmen, Bill Broonzy, Memphis Slim, and Sonny Boy Williamson, in a live conversation punctuated with music at Decca Studios in New York City. Listen to the complete interview here:

Read Lomax’s transcription here.

Booker T. vs. W.E.B.

bookerdubois

(W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington)

I subscribe to the Poem-A-Day email offered for free by the Academy of American Poets. It’s nice to wake up to a poem before you start dealing with your to-do lists and putting out the various fires of everyday life.

During the week, the Academy sends out a recently-written poem every day, often written by poets who are members of  historically-marginalized groups. On the weekends, however, they dig into their archives and offer poems from around the turn of the twentieth century. This is one of the weekend poems, first published in 1909 by the early-twentieth-century African-American poet Joseph Seamon Cotter, Sr., pictured below:

joseph_seamon_cotter_sr_0

Dr. Booker T. Washington to the National Negro Business League

Tis strange indeed to hear us plead
   For selling and for buying
When yesterday we said: “Away
   With all good things but dying.”

The world’s ago, and we’re agog
   To have our first brief inning;
So let’s away through surge and fog
   However slight the winning.

What deeds have sprung from plow and pick!
   What bank-rolls from tomatoes!
No dainty crop of rhetoric 
   Can match one of potatoes.

Ye orators of point and pith,
   Who force the world to heed you,
What skeletons you’ll journey with
   Ere it is forced to feed you.

A little gold won’t mar our grace,
   A little ease our glory.
This world’s a better biding place 
   When money clinks its story.

Booker T. Washington, who was born a slave,

believed that it was economic independence and the ability to show themselves as productive members of society that would eventually lead blacks to true equality, and that they should for the time being set aside any demands for civil rights. These ideas formed the essence of a speech he delivered to a mixed-race audience at the Cotton State and International Exposition in Atlanta in 1895. There and elsewhere, his ideas were readily accepted by both blacks who believed in the practical rationality of his approach, and whites who were more than happy to defer any real discussion of social and political equality for blacks to a later date. It was, however, referred to pejoratively as the “Atlanta Compromise” by its critics. And among them was W.E.B. Du Bois. . . .

Do you think the poet, Joseph Seamon Cotter Sr., agrees with Washington, or challenges him?

On the other hand, W.E.B. Du Bois, an excerpt from whose 1903 book The Souls of Black Folk you have read, believed that the struggle for equal opportunity and civil rights came first.

At the time [the turn of the twentieth century]. the Washington/Du Bois dispute polarized African American leaders into two wings–the ‘conservative’ supporters of Washington and his ‘radical’ critics. The Du Bois philosophy of agitation and protest for civil rights flowed directly into the Civil Rights movement which began to develop in the 1950’s and exploded in the 1960’s. Booker T. today is associated, perhaps unfairly, with the self-help/colorblind/Republican/Clarence Thomas/Thomas Sowell wing of the black community and its leaders. The Nation of Islam and Maulana Karenga’s Afrocentrism derive too from this strand out of Booker T.’s philosophy. However, the latter advocated withdrawal from the mainstream in the name of economic advancement.

In a grossly simplistic terms, it can be said that Booker T. Washington’s argument was for separatism, while W.E.B. Du Bois’s was for full integration and participation in the mainstream of American society.

Read the blog post “Race, Class, Art, and Consumption” and tell me what you think. Do you think the Carters  are advancing the Du Bois or the Washington model?

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Jay-Z has said, “Generational wealth, that’s the key.” Generational wealth refers to the assets passed down from grandparents to parents to children. It’s by now well-known that there’s a huge gap in generational wealth between blacks and whites in America, largely due to redlining, a phenomenon that followed on the heels of the Great Migration. Redlining was the practice of banks and homeowners’ insurance companies of denying mortgages to blacks who wanted to buy a house. The term comes the color-coded city maps devised by urban planners, with the redlined communities considered high-risk for loan default (mainly because blacks and immigrants lived in them).

Do you agree that generational wealth is the key to full participation in American society? What if you don’t have access to it?

Jay-Z and Beyonce have both used their wealth in the service of causes they believe in. Jay-Z, for instance, helped get Meek Mill released from prison, and Beyoncé has donated to HBCUs. However,

In the context of the Carters’ philanthropy, and their palpable concern for the communities they represent, [do] the watches and diamonds on [their new album] Everything Is Love feel less like the album’s point and more like decorations [?]

Have the Carters become the system?

When Jay-Z asks, “What’s better than one billionaire?” Twitter responds: “No billionaires.”

Do you agree?

Who was right, Booker T. or W.E.B.? Neither? Both? Have things changed in the past century? Have they gotten better? Have they gotten worse?

It’s worth nothing that John Lomax admired Booker T. Washington, calling him “wise, tolerant, a gifted orator, a great leader of his people.” It’s likely that Lomax saw the separatism advocated by Washington as an asset when it came to preserving black folk music (and, as you know, Lomax held to some old racist ideologies).

What do you think?

Fare Thee Well

dink
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:

https://www.loc.gov/item/ihas.200196400?embed=resources

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?”

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.

victrola-cabinet-phonograph-with-inside-horn

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].”