White Like Me

By  Allen Lowe |  June 6, 2013

First let me say that I have thought often and hard about the whole question of authenticity, especially when it involves race, and my thoughts have generally roamed to the question of blues and other Old World forms of African-American music, from country songsterism to post–ragtime guitar, Delta to Piedmont blues, and gospel shouting to Jubilee quartets (and of course toward jazz, which is what brought me, originally, into the whole American music scene).

Regarding the blues, I have read a bit of the current literature that I would classify as revisionist in its approach to that generation (or really group) ofaficionados whose work led us to the folk and blues revival of the 1960s, and without whom we would probably not be doing this round table. This group is referred to most frequently as the “Blues Mafia,” and some critics charge, among other things, that these “mafiosi” were deluded in their characterizations of the music, and were arguably racist in their alleged romanticizing and fetishizing of African Americans and their art. I have personally known two of the men in this group who were actually not only deeply knowledgeable about this music but wonderfully generous in their willingness to share their knowledge—not to mention what important pioneers they were in the rediscovery of so much significant and not only historically butartistically necessary music and musicians. And two things that I finally realized, after going back and forth over some of the charges made in the new literature, were: 

1) The people I knew of that group were not the least bit racist in their attitudes. They had no sense that this music was part of any form of exotica, and, by celebrating the music, were simply doing what they saw as their cultural, aesthetic, and intellectual duty.

2) Most importantly, they (and myself), contrary to another charge that has been made, did not advocate that music was aesthetically important because they thought it was socially and historically authentic, but rather advocated for its historical authenticity because they thought it was real art. They were not ascribing aesthetic importance based on social considerations, but rather were ascribing social importance based on aesthetic considerations. In other words, they thought it was authentic because they liked it; they did not like it because they thought it was authentic. This is a crucial and life-altering distinction. 

I would add that many of these third-party critics are academics who, instead of immersing themselves in the music and the musicians and the people who discovered and rediscovered the music, have retreated behind the scholarly barricades of gender studies and performance theory and other forms of anthropological mystification, all of which has had the effect of erecting new and more impenetrable intellectual barriers between writers and critics and the music and history they explore. This is something of which the so-called Blues Mafia, populists all, were never guilty.

The evangelical zeal of the mafiosi partially (but only partially) addresses the question of why it always seems like white guys are “at the door,” surveying aspects of African-American history. But maybe it’s time to stop asking that question, which both implies and imposes a separatist viewpoint that I no longer accept. As I argued in a recent article on my blog, African-American history is also partly my history. It doesn’t require an assimilationist viewpoint or a denial of the deep African roots of American song to welcome this music as part of a broader and more inclusive heritage. And I would argue that this heritage extends not only to and from the African diaspora but also in other, less quantifiable directions, and has been assimilated by some very unlikely sources.

I am aware of the larger racial issues and the historical lack of a level racial playing field, the genocidal impulses of the Old South, and the long history of discrimination and cheating in the music business. But like it or not, aesthetics has a life of its own, as do expression and creativity and imagination, and once the music was out, there was no way to stop its cross-racial spread and amplification. And even if, as Elijah Wald has convincingly demonstrated, the blues and its offshoots were not as popular or pervasive as some folklorists would have us believe, that point is really, finally, irrelevant. Son House and Charley Patton and Willie Brown and Robert Johnson (and Harmonica Frank) invented what amounts to a fantastically complex Southern counterculture, and it should be recognized as such, record sales notwithstanding.

I must say I was deeply troubled by Duncan Murrell’s essay about authenticity in the last Oxford American Music issue. In my view, Murrell irresponsibly labeled Alan Lomax a waxy preservationist and closet antiquarian who had stupidly romantic and possibly racist ideas of anticommercialism, and who also had snobbish attitudes about authenticity.

These charges contradict what I’ve read in John Szwed’s recent biography, and in Lomax’s own articles, which I have been reading of late. Not only did Lomax praise popular musicians like Elvis, he made active lists of important commercial recordings, and regularly included commercial music in his cultural reconsiderations of American music. Regardless of Lomax’s intentions, without his work we would have a gaping hole in our picture of Southern American music from the last one hundred years. John Lomax, for all his (likely racist) foibles, was advocating, before 1920, for the preservation of African-American music. Name me five other white people in the whole country who were doing so at such an early date. The Lomaxes are clearly a family to be reckoned with.

Promotion and preservation of history have always, at least in my work, been part of the same process, though often used in different ways. I once wrote that tradition, in the jazz world (I am a jazz musician) had become, in certain quarters, something of a club with which to beat heretics over the head—as a means of enforcing conformity, though shrouded (sometimes quite effectively) in claims of love and respect. This is one prime reason, I think, that appreciation of jazz has diminished from an already small audience to an even smaller audience. There is this sense that the music is merely a slavish replication of history—a history that was rich in possibilities and accomplishment, but is still only a history.

This point of view, of tradition as a middle-class necessity (because what is more middle class than the sense that you do something “because it’s good for you”?), also represents, to many of us, the delusion that there is indeed one audience, homogeneous in its aesthetic tastes and desires. This is an idea that was effectively discredited by Walter Benjamin, who wrote, in the 1920s, that such a label implies a single, immoveable, implacable entity, when in truth audiences are constantly changing in their demographics, in their needs and demands. This is especially true, I would add, in the Internet age.

There is a lot more I could say on this subject, as I currently live in folkie hell (otherwise known as Portland, Maine), in which a particular code of ahistorical amateurism seems to prevail. I have strong feelings about the ways traditional forms of American music can and should be approached by living musicians. In my opinion creativity is captive of a double consciousness—paradoxically different than the one Dubois referred to—in which historical hypersensitivity coexists with the radical ability to completely discard history. But more on that at another time and in another forum. As Philip Larkin said, “the past refuses to be over.” That doesn’t, however, mean that we can’t change it.