by carl wilson

Should I Jump Jim Crow?

My friend Sean Dixon, playwright, actor and clawhammer-banjo player, told me awhile ago that Robert Christgau's essay on minstrel studies in the new issue of The Believer was "required reading." Having read it tonight, that seems an understatement. At least if you have some of the cultural fixations I do - minstrelsy being an underlying history in everything from country to rock to hip-hop. [...]

It's one of the most compelling, coherent pieces the Village Voice's "Dean of Rock Criticism" has written in a decade. There's been a boom in studies of blackface shows as the root of modern pop in the past couple of decades. But this is the first critical survey I've seen; the tendency is for the writers to pose as pioneers. (Nick Tosches' unreadable Where Dead Voices Gather is decidedly the worst case, and one of my only complaints about Christgau's article is that he's too generous to that sodden, self-besotted mess.)

Christgau begins from the question of the truth of the founding legend of minstrelsy that Jump Jim Crow was a song learned from a crippled sharecropper. But the article's heart is how it gets from there to rock'n'roll, via a defence of the integrative forces and complexities running underneath the obvious racist face of "corking up."

The Believer piece is an attack on the misunderstandings of "authenticity" that are endemic to minstrelsy discourse, and that's a strong driver of my own work in other contexts. Age isn't irrelevant. The more one has experienced about how art actually is made, the less well any simple j'accuse about "theft" across cultures sits.

How racism plays out in rock and jazz and hip-hop history remains central but the mere presence of racism no longer squats like a period at the end of any sentence. Christgau - who is if nothing else one of the white rock world's earliest and most important advocates of both rap and African musics - comes at it saying, yes, these expressions were racist, sexist, homophobic etc. ... but since that was all but universal among whites at the time, what were they about other than their aversions? Art is made up of its attractions much more than its avoidances.

You can only see how much ground it covers by reading it. But of especial interest here on Zoilus is the way he talks about actual minstrel-show music. For the most part, it was far less "black" than you might assume, pitching to the British Isles-derived population of the time; musically it was much closer to Celtic reels and Victorian sentimental songs than to African influences.

This complication in the black-music-expropriation story intrigues me - what exactly is European and white about popular music? I wonder not as some kind of racial reclamation or repudiation of the obviously racist dynamic in the creation of swing, rock, country etc., but for really personal reasons. Coming from Canada, where the racial mix was until recently much less intense than in the U.S., I recognize a "whiteness" to my tastes, especially before adulthood (when my range of experience became stronger than my narcissism and soul, jazz, R&B; and hip-hop all began to make new sense).

I am still interested in how that whiteness shaped (shapes) my listening, what whiteness is, what its fiction as a homogenizer of vast ethnic elements means. To take a very simple example, one chapter would be about the Beatles/Stones rivalry: Clearly the Stones always kept black music as a reference point, while the Beatles from the first filled their rock with white sonic signifiers (skiffle, pub, folk and classical musics). How does that relate to their respective legacies, and the fact that the Beatles were my first-ever music obsession while the Stones (whose work I don't know that well) sound more arresting to me now?

Meanwhile Seattle's Experience Music Project's annual conference can present a paper called "White Blood Sells" about the supposed racism of the White Stripes. It's not like this issue's dead. (Though if it were practical I'd dearly love to hit the confab: Christgau is doing a talk called Writing About Music Is Writing First, to which sentiment huzza, hurrah, hurray.)

The goal is not to valorize the white elements but to isolate them so that their interaction with the black influence can be addressed, with the sense that this might contribute more to understanding the fictions and seductions of race as a general North American myth - ultimately to see the blur, and how the narrative of race finally unmoors any account of what skin-colour-tribes "naturally" mean.

I often think about the Afropunk: The 'Rock'n'Roll Nigger' Experience doc last year: On one hand, it shows you black punks justifying themselves by saying that rock began as a black form (as of course it did) and on the other you see them wondering if their musical enthusiasms mirror a form of self-hatred or just see them looked past and through by their white community and audience. Why these realities coexist remains a violently urgent question.

This is the book idea friends warn you away from - "you'll dig your own grave." But Christgau's article reignites the impulse. The landmines can be ... I was going to say dodged, but rather they should be detonated, but from a measured distance. Anyway, I'll keep you posted (in my head the book is called White Noise, though that may be a very bad idea). There is something to it, but it is indeed a something to be approached with a humble uncertainty.

Read More | The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Sunday, March 07 at 04:42 AM | Linking Posts | Comments (0)


Zoilus by Carl Wilson