Race in America, Race in Music: Different Trains, Same Two Tracks

It’s taken generations for black American to cut through some of the more artificial constructs about racial purity – and that’s just within pop music.

Perhaps it is, as improbable as it may seem, that we Americans of other persuasions should owe the Tea Party movement some measure of gratitude for keeping an important issue in the mix of political discourse. However, that issue isn’t the one Tea Partiers rail about most often: it’s not taxation, or health care, or the role of government in people’s lives. In fact, it’s an issue they aren’t necessarily trying to engage, but one people can’t help engaging when dissecting a Tea Party event.

In case you haven’t noticed, most of the people at Tea Party get-togethers are white. Actually, damn near all of them are white. That wouldn’t be an issue in and of itself in many cases; damn near all of the people in the stands at a National Hockey League game are white, and that doesn’t set pundits and bloggers off looking for deeper meanings. Then again, hockey fans don’t generally show up to the rink carrying Photoshopped pictures of a black man with a Hitler mustache.

The lightness of the Tea Party movement is almost unbearable for more than a few commentators (see, for example, the Countdown with Keith Olbermann “special comment” I cited in my last column, Six Years in the Life of Post-Blackness (Or Not)). It’s a reasonably simple equation, but more than knotty enough to try to resolve. We’re faced with an essentially lily-white opposition movement against the policies of a president who happens to be black.

Much of the rhetoric at Tea Party events, while nowhere near as virulent as the hatred spewed by segregationists against the civil rights movement in the ‘60s, borders nonetheless on incitements to mass mayhem. The question becomes: how much of the anti-Obama antipathy churned up at Tea Party events is simply because they disagree with his political priorities? Or, given America’s long-standing history of racial divide, how much is it about the fact that a black man is their president?

Tea Partiers, for their part, will claim that it’s not about race at all, then go scurrying about to trot out a black face as window dressing for the cameras. This practice, of course, is nothing new. The Republican Party has done this for years, pimping the likes of Alan Keyes in hopelessly transparent attempts to broaden its base that have consistently failed (we’ll see if this year’s midterm elections bring about a change of fortune there; see Rich Benjamin’s 24 April Alternet article ”What’s Behind the Republicans Fielding 32 Black Candidates for Congress in 2010?). Nor is this phenomenon new or unique to politics; in the mid-’70s, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights produced an indictment of the TV news industry for its lack of black faces on the air, entitled “Window Dressing on the Set.”

However, all the Tea Party entreaties to color-blindness have failed to convince most of the liberal-left swath of the political spectrum. First, people have jumped all over popular Tea Party catchphrases like “taking my country back”, a reference to the population becoming more non-white by the day. More recently, a survey reported by Newsweek arms Tea Party critics with some empirical facts to back up their claims. (“Are Tea Partiers Racist?” by Arian Campo-Flores, 26 April 2010) The University of Washington study found Tea Partiers 25 percent more likely than others to harbor a racial grudge.

Most Tea Partiers deny any hint of racial animosity, but a goodly number of them still insist that Obama was born somewhere outside of America, not the State of Hawaii as indicated on his birth certificate. If they continue to argue that fallacy, it’s legitimate to question their sincerity – not to mention their sanity – on other points where ethnicity and nationality come into question.

To be fair, it’s not that the Tea Partiers invented racial discord and disconnect just the other day, and there are some voices within the movement trying to dampen down the nutjobs (see ”Tea party groups battling perceptions of racism,” Washington Post, 5 May 2010). In fact, this whole conversation is serving as a reminder that racial tension didn’t go away from the core of the American psyche when Obama moved into the White House.

There have been other helpful reminders of said racial tension, of late. Kelefa Sanneh unpacked the long, strange trip of American whiteness in his New Yorker essay “Beyond the Pale” (12 April 2010) In an overview ranging from the Stuff White People Like blog to Nell Irvin Painter’s provocative new book The History of White People (W. W. Norton), Sanneh observed that the nature of white identity has been a work-in-progress in many respects, tent-poled by both racist and populist lines of reasoning. He’ll have to forgive those non-whites who, cognizant of

America’s legacy of white racism and privilege, can’t find it within them to muster up much sympathy.

That number would likely include Melissa Harris-Lacewell, who took up Obama’s Census choice as “black”, as opposed to bi-racial in her column ”Black by Choice” (The Nation, 15 April 2010). In it, she saw that, white parentage aside, at the end of the day Obama’s solidarity rests with black Americans going all the way back to slavery. Patricia Williams followed that up with another The Nation piece, ”Not-Black by Default” (21 April 2010), picking up on Harris-Lacewell’s assertion that no matter what any group calls itself, the day-to-day realities forged by the actual power that group enjoys (or not) are far weightier than whatever might be in a name.

To drive that point home with tongue only slightly in cheek, Tim Wise’s widely circulated Don’t Tea on Me blog post “What If the Tea Party Were Black?” supposes that if black folk tried to do what Tea Partiers do (hold rallies, walk around with guns, tell the President of the United States to suck on it, that sort of thing), they’d be considered anything but a political movement deserving of a voice in the decision-making process.

However, to the extent to which race is a defining factor in American life, it isn’t confined to thoughtful articles in highbrow or left-leaning publications. It’s been right here in front of us for the last 80 years or so, hiding in plain sight in the pop music charts.

Segregating Sound

I’m glad to see that the Carolina Chocolate Drops are doing all right for themselves. Two years ago in this space (“Retelling the History of Black Music Part 1: Adventures in Retro-ism”), I pondered this trio of 20-something black musicians exploring the black stringband tradition, a style of music played and recorded by blacks for years, but which hardly any black folk since World War II (if not further back than that) have considered black music.

The good news is that they’ve released a third CD (Genuine Negro Jig, Nonesuch, see Ross Langeger’s PopMatters review, here) and they continue to receive critical acclaim. The bad news is that much of that acclaim still revolves around the fish-out-of-water metaphor in talking about their art, and has only barely moved past considering them as novelties within the broader black music spectrum. The worse news is that even with all their good press, and even a cover of a recent R&B hit (Blu Cantrell’s “Hit ‘Em Up Style”) on their new album, they still can’t get arrested anywhere in the ‘hood that sells music.

The same goes for Darius Rucker, but at least he ought to be used to it by now. His old band Hootie and the Blowfish sold a trizzuckload of records in the ‘90s, almost all of it to non-blacks, seeing as how their loping soft-rock wasn’t a regular staple of black pop culture. Now he’s a solo artist, and did bang-up business with his 2008 CD Learn to Live (Captiol), racking up three #1 singles and earning best-new-artist honors. Those hits were on the country charts, and that honor came from the Country Music Association. He was the first black performer to win the CMA’s rookie-of-the-year equivalent since the award was created in 1971. Yet given the fact that, for the most part, black folk and country music never interact, Rucker’s historic achievement drew nothing but crickets in the ‘hood.

Now, it’s not like The Carolina Chocolate Drops and Rucker are the first black folks to dive into their respective musical pools. Anybody who knows anything about The Carolina Chocolate Drops knows that they’re tapping back into a vibrant tradition that few realized had black roots. As for the broader arena of country music, Rucker has lots of black company. The essential three-CD compilation From Where I Stand: The Black Experience in Country Music (Warner Brothers, 1998) chronicles a surprisingly rich legacy, from early black stringbands like the Mississippi Sheiks, to country-soul hybrid tunes from Wynonie Harris to Al Green, to a heaping dose of Charlie Pride, still the first name on the black-country-artist shortlist, and other straight-up country tunes by contemporary black performers.

Book: Segregating Sound: Inventing Folk and Pop Music in the Age of Jim Crow

Author: Karl Hagstrom Miller

Publisher: Duke University Press

Publication Date: 2010-03

Format: Hardcover

Length: 384 pages

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/book_cover_art/s/segregatingsound-cvr.jpgSo how is it that within black culture, folk and country music became foreign languages? Like much else in American life, the answer has a lot to do with race, and how it was used to classify and separate people with many otherwise common bonds. Karl Hagestrom Miller’s new book Segregating Sound: Inventing Folk and Pop Music in the Age of Jim Crow (Duke University Press) is the most thorough achievement thus far in a growing body of scholarship and criticism demystifying and dissecting the roots of American music, and by extension the American music industry.

The bulk of this line of revisionist thought takes on one of the creation myths of American pop music – that blues and folk music developed along two distinct tracks, with their own distinct traditions, conveniently divided along racial lines. Blues artists, who were always black, drew from a wellspring of influence just barely grazed by white folk music, the myth goes. Likewise, country music emerged as something by, for and of white culture, completely untainted by those dark blues chords and darker blues lyrics. That’s what made the ascension of Elvis Presley such a shock to the system, for he dared to celebrate his love and respect for black music at a time when most people didn’t believe a right-thinking white person could possibly do such a thing.

The truth is, of course, far more slippery and complicated. Black and white musicians from the South, working and sometimes even living in close proximity to each other, routinely drew from each other, with the evidence lying everywhere from instrumentation (there were outstanding banjo players, fiddlers and jug bands of both races) to repertoire. There were black rural performers like Mississippi John Hurt, whose 1928 recordings had nothing to do with the 12-bar blues already codified as the expected default mode for music from black rural performers. Later on came the case of how country legend Hank Williams learned much of his game from an obscure black Alabaman named Rufus “Tee-tot” Payne.

This more intricate recasting of pop music’s evolution has been crafted in several places, including in books such as Marybeth Hamilton’s In Search of the Blues: Black Voices, White Visions (Basic Books, 2008) and Elijah Wald’s Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues (Amistad, 2004); I’ve discussed their research previously here in “Retelling the History of Black Music: Everything You Know about the Blues Is Wrong”. Miller goes several steps further than prior bodies of research, tracing back the artificial distinction to a confluence of marketing, scholarship, and music classification decisions, each driven to some degree by the prevailing racial attitudes of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Miller begins in the 1880s and 1890s, during the waning years of minstrelsy and the dawning of the music business Touring productions and sheet music sales brought a new range of music, from hoary sentimental ballads to “coon songs” a step or two removed from minstrelsy’s worst excesses, from New York City to southern audiences. Even as southern musicians incorporated the new songs into their acts, white audiences and black audiences often took radically different messages from the same material.

While the audiences may have been in two separate camps, shrewd musicians found that they could appeal to both. It helped to know a lot of songs, enough to tailor a performance to the dancers and listeners footing the bill. It also helped that, at least in the early 20th century, the line between “black” music and “white” music wasn’t firmly drawn, and white and black musicians could freely appropriate songs and styles, all in an effort to generate more commercial viability.

Miller locates the earliest evidence of drawing strict boundaries between black and white music in, of all places, academia. The study of folk culture, beginning with the founding of the American Folklore Society in 1888, considered various philosophical underpinnings before the notion took hold that folk cultures were best studied where they existed in isolation from the world at-large. This stripped much of the fuller complexity and diversity of those cultures away from folklorists’ perceptions. It also made it easier for preconceived notions about those cultures to become received wisdom, leading to the calcification and perpetuation of stereotypes about both white and black Southerners.

The burgeoning record industry came to similar conclusions about the separateness of the white and black markets, buoyed by its experience overseas. Record companies would, after various missteps, find it easier to record music that conformed to their own notion of what “local” meant in each far-flung locale – conveniently brushing past any idea that those “locals” might be influenced by Western music. That theory would find application back in America during the ’20s, when black and white music officially became two separate genres.

Black music, be it the northern “vaudeville” blues or the southern “rural” blues, would be known as “race” music (since black folks called themselves “The Race” back then). White music would become branded as “old-time” music, since it presumably looked back to a simpler, less complicated era of white American life. Both genres were marketed separately, and record companies discouraged artists from “crossing over” to draw from the other pool (or to record straight-up Tin Pan Alley songs, lest they diminish the patina of folkloric “authenticity” the companies strove to market).

Miller stops well short of delineating the effects of this artistic segregation on the music industry (or American culture in general) in the 80-odd years since the practice took root. However, he makes clear that racial attitudes were never too far from the surface as the lines between musical genres and markets were coming into shape. Over time, Americans would take away from this forced, all-but-unseen separation the idea that artistic style is the primary marker of an ethnicity’s cultural primacy, and any deviation from the straight-and-narrow could get one branded an outcast.

Thus, years later, white artists who play a style of pop music accepted by black audiences (and acknowledge the influence with sincerity), from the Righteous Brothers to Hall & Oates to Robin Thicke, get love from black audiences. Conversely, while Thicke holds his own on the black pop charts, the Carolina Chocolate Drops and Darius Rucker get their support from, respectively, the folk and roots music scenes, and the country side of the pop landscape – decidedly non-black worlds.

The difference is that since black pop is at the heart of American pop, it’s not so hard for a non-R&B fan to bump into Thicke’s music by accident. On the other hand, any black person interested in The Carolina Chocolate Drops or Rucker (or, in earlier times, Jimi Hendrix or Bob Marley, to name but two) will have to leave the friendly confines of mainstream black pop culture and media, and risk being considered some sort of traitor to the race by those who hew more rigidly to the boundaries.

Those boundaries have become far more porous in recent years, as more critics and scholars have taken note of the diversity within black culture. It’s still taken generations for black people to cut through some of the more artificial constructs about racial purity, though – and that’s just within pop music. Black and non-black alike tackling racial constructs within the American two-party political system…well, good luck with that.

Obama’s election and the Tea Party backlash to it have abruptly shifted the parameters, and upped the urgency, for all Americans considering race within our national political discourse. We’re still stumbling around in the wilderness about that job, still trying to grasp what this political moment means for the future of race in American life. As we’ve seen thus far, that process will neither be simple nor pretty. There’s an awful lot of baggage to unpack, history to understand, and honest conversation to broker. We’ll find out soon enough if Americans have the interest, will and stomach to make something more substantial than a passing soundbite out of this current bluster.