Authenticity, part III: White Tears

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As you know by now, White Tears is the story (among other things!) of Seth, a young, white, college-educated sound engineer, who accidentally records a line from an old blues song while picking up ambient sounds in Washington Square Park. His business partner Carter, the scion of a wealthy family whose riches come from running private prisons and black ops sites, engineers the recording to make it sound vintage and posts it online, claiming it’s actually a historical recording by Charlie Shaw, a blues musician from the 1920s whose name Carter claims to have randomly made up. Soon, however, a record collector contacts them to tell them that Charlie Shaw was, and perhaps still is, a real person. So the novel is a kind of a ghost story, as well as a commentary on black music and the ways it has historically intersected with the overlapping systems of race, class, privilege, and criminal justice in America.

Hari Kunzru, an Englishman of Pakistani descent, says of his novel, “This is a book about absence,” raising the questions: Why were some black artists from the past recorded, and not others? Why are some black musicians remembered, and others forgotten?

In the video linked above, Kunzru speaks of moving to the United States around the time of Barack Obama’s first election:

The moment of false hope . . . for a post-racial America, the idea that we could just forget all this stuff and consign it to history, and then the realization that actually this history still poisons public life in the U.S. to an unbelievable degree . . . I was quite shocked by that . . . I wanted to bring my own experience, because I am an outsider, but I have a particular history with those questions here [in England]. My history is all about empire and dealing with that . . . There was a moment when . . . this romanticized idea of American history was very big in the hipster culture . . . [White Tears is also] a story about wealth and inheritance, and inherited money, and what . . . rich young people, whose parents have done whatever to make [their] money, come to New York in order to convert [financial] capital into cultural capital.

What does Kunzru mean by “cultural capital”?

Read this fascinating interview with Kunzru on the research he did on the histories of blues recording and record collecting.

And read this essay by Rishi Nath in Africa Is A Country, which suggests that the real ghost whose presence hovers over White Tears is . . . that of Biggie Smalls.

The line of the song that Seth inadvertently picks up in the first chapter of White Tears is “Believe I buy me a graveyard of my own.” Kunzru may be referring to this song, “Furry’s Blues,” by Walter “Furry” Lewis:

And possibly also to this country blues song:

Incidentally, in 1976, Joni Mitchell wrote a song about cultural appropriation in which Furry Lewis features, “Furry Sings the Blues.” Mitchell does not excuse herself from the sin of appropriation:

Old Furry sings the blues

Propped up in his bed

With his dentures and his leg removed . . . 

Old Furry sings the blues

You bring him smoke and drink and he’ll play for you

lt’s mostly muttering now and sideshow spiel

But there was one song he played

I could really feel . . . 

Old Furry sings the blues

He points a bony finger at you and says

“I don’t like you”

Everybody laughs as if it’s the old man’s standard joke

But it’s true

We’re only welcome for our drink and smoke . . . 

W. C. Handy, I’m rich and I’m fey

And I’m not familiar with what you played

But I get such strong impressions of your hey day

Looking up and down old Beale Street . . . 

Furry sings the blues

Why should I expect that old guy to give it to me true

Fallen to hard luck

And time and other thieves

While our limo is shining on his shanty street

Old Furry sings the blues

In White Tears, the B-side of Charlie Shaw’s “Graveyard Blues” is given as “The Laughing Song” (see p. 230). This is a reference to “The Negro Laughing Song,” a popular song from the days of minstrelsy. As Kunzru describes it,

The genre of the laughing song comes from the 19th-century. These songs start with a black performer singing about the racist things white people say when they see them. Then the song dissolves into rhythmic laughing. It’s the laughter of somebody who is trying to diffuse a potentially violent situation. There is such a horror to the laughter. The laughter is a window into what it felt like to be a black man on the street at sun down in the south during segregation. 

The lyrics of the song, consisting only of “Ha ha ha,” take up almost four entire pages near the end of the novel. The narrator, Seth, describes the sound as “hollow, forced, mechanical . . . the sound of a body undergoing discipline . . . the most terrifying sound I had ever heard.” As Kunzru explains in the interview excerpted above:

I specified to the publisher that I wanted it to run as spread so that the reader turns the page and has “ha ha ha” on the left and right side. To me that is the heart of darkness, or the heart of whiteness, in the book. It’s the kind of horror that can’t be described and just exists in this contentious laughter.

A remaster of the original 1891 recording of  “The Negro Laughing Song” by George W. Johnson:

Another suggested playlist for the book is here.

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As you know, I love this book. On the other hand, my brother, the music critic George Grella (above), who wrote this book about Miles Davis, said about White Tears on GoodReads:

This is a terrible book.

. . . Nothing against the ambition, which boils down to the question of authenticity, what it is and the dangers of pursuing it to the utmost level of purity. The vehicle is old-time American music, from poor Southern musicians, mostly black and mostly blues players, recorded in the 1920s on labels like Paramount. The characters who carry this are Seth (the protagonist) and Carter, buddies from college who use Carter’s family money to start a recording studio. They in turn are paralleled by the story of an older record collector and the obsession of one of his colleagues. Both pairs are connected through what is essentially an imaginary song from a pseudonymous musician, Charlie Shaw.

Kunzru is woefully unprepared to execute this task. The self-conscious quality of his research is painfully embarrassing throughout: the author picked up details of audio engineering, musicians’ names, song titles, and serial numbers, without ever picking up any understanding of the subject. He seems to have never heard the music in question, or it seems to have never penetrated his understanding—he comes off as the collectors themselves, obsessed with the completeness and quality of the physical object and not much interested in the art it contains. Seth and Carter somehow find themselves caring only about old acoustic recordings without ever seeming to find anything in the music that matters to them as human beings (that Kunzru name checks some well-known music writers who are features of the upper middle-class white bourgeoisie and can’t hear African-American music past Beyoncé is a tell).

This all turns into an overwrought potboiler of sex and murder, with a heaping condescension of the young white man finding, through violence and tragedy, the authentic feeling of being a young black man deep in the Jim Crow South. This is a terrible kind of slumming, Kunzru arguing that Seth has achieved this experience through writing that is nothing more than gazing at (and never putting the needle down on) the shellac grooves on a 78 side. The prose itself has the earnest, focussed, affectlessness that is everywhere now, spawned from countless MFA programs, and that is professionally smooth, bland, and that allows the author to disavow any specific meaning. That is dishonest, and the foundation of this deeply dishonest book.

Fighting words. What do you think?

“Ethiopian” Songs: Love and Theft

[Trigger/content warnings: Blackface minstrelsy, racist imagery, racist language, and racist depictions of African-Americans in the linked audio of minstrel songs.]

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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.

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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,

used to croon a queer old tune, with words of his own, and at the end of each verse would give a little jump . . . The words of the refrain were:

Wheel about, turn about,
Do jus’ so,
An’ ebery time I wheel about,
I jump Jim Crow.

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Rice as “Jim Crow.”

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

offered up a random selection of songs interspersed with what passed for black wit . . . the second part (or “olio”) featured a group of novelty performances . . . and the third part was a narrative skit, usually set in the South, containing dancing, music, and burlesque.

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

It was cross-racial desire that coupled a nearly insupportable fascination and a self-protective derision with respect to black people and their cultural practices, and that made blackface minstrelsy less a sign of absolute white power and control than of panic, anxiety, terror, and pleasure.

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?

Whatever the case,

The Ethiopian vogue . . . swept over the United States . . . the public clamored for Ethiopian melodies, and songwriters gave it such songs as Old Dan Tucker, Dandy Jim from Caroline, Zip Coon, Jim Along Josey, Coal-Black Rosie [and others].

Old Dan Tucker:

Dandy Jim:

Zip Coon (a “zip coon” was a derogatory slang term for an urban black man, the citified counterpart of the rural “Jim Crow”):

Jim Along Josie:

Which later, with some changes, made its way into the children’s song repertoire:

Coal Black Rose — here sung as a sea shanty (Remember “Go Down, You Blood-Red Roses”?):

Boatman’s Dance, attributed, like “Dixie,” to Dan Emmett:

The twentieth-century composer Aaron Copland made a popular arrangement of “Boatman’s Dance” for baritone and orchestra. American baritone Thomas Hampson sings it here, with a hint of an AAVE accent:

Rhiannon Giddens reclaims the song:

Giddens with her old band, the Carolina Chocolate Drops:

In 1992, the white alt-folk singer Michelle Shocked released an album called Arkansas Traveler. According to a review at the time:

[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.

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:

I was walking down Hollywood Boulevard, in search of a costume for a Halloween party when I saw this black guy with a beautiful spirit walking with a bop… As he went by me he turned around and said, “Ummmm, mmm… looking good sister, lookin’ good!” Well I just felt so good after he said that. It was as if this spirit went into me. So I started walking like him. I bought a black wig, I bought sideburns, a moustache. I bought some pancake makeup. It was like ‘I’m goin’ as him!’

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.

Emma Hallberg Instagram stories https://www.instagram.com/eemmahallberg/ Credit: Emma Hallberg/Instagram

You may also recall Rachel Dolezal, the head of the NAACP in Spokane, Washington, who stepped down after it was revealed she was white.

Two black critics on the New York Times staff, Wesley Morris and Jenna Wortham, have termed these kinds of gestures as “performative blackness.”

What do you think? is blackface, in all of its manifestations, love and theft?

For more on identity and performative blackness, read here and here.