Friday, August 31, 2007

"The Office" (Workstation series) 32 ("What was that about 'compassion' again?" edition)

Friday of the first week of classes, and "Dave's not here, man!" [obscure Cheech 'n' Chong reference]. Working at the Office off-campus.

But even if I didn't have a spouse who has to be teaching on-campus in about 20 minutes, I'd know we were back in the semester, in the early part of the calendar, but at the end of a week with a Party Weekend looming. Because the place is overrun with about five tables of sorority girls, so identified not only by hair, nails, jewelry, and makeup, but also by their Greek T-shirts and ballcaps, and the expensively-bound privately-printed souvenir photo-albums they are showing each other--and by the fact that they are talking louder than everyone else in the place.

It's not their fault: they're raised in a culture in which vicarious self-engrossment, far from being a contradiction in terms, is in fact the prevailing media archetype: individuals (Lindsey, Britney, Madonna as the senior and canniest example) who are make a 7-figure living out of being famous for their foibles, not their accomplishments. It's not a contradiction in terms, because those celebrities have little to contribute except the outsized baroque bizarreness of their dysfunctional personalities (as I write this, the Kentucky-Fried-Chicken-stained designer gown Britney wore to a notorious recent photo shoot is up on eBay, and the auction bidding is off the hook). And, with the ubiquity of these mass-media archetypes in the kids' daily lives, it's no wonder that the "Simple Life" (Paris and Nicole) or the "Real World" (MTV) is realer via the electronic baby-sitter than human contact--or that they think their own lives will only have meaning to the extent that they can imitate the Celebs.

My personal issue: how to manifest compassion to these kids when they're monopolizing the sound-space, or waltzing across the parking lot talking animatedly on their iPhones or Razrs oblivious to the traffic patterns they're stepping out in front of, or swerving across three lanes of traffic to make an illegal right turn in their GMC Behemoths [tm] while repairing their mascara or text-messaging with their other hands--and then look hurt when you honk the horn or cuss at them.

In the abstract, or close-up, it's easy to recognize their individuality and sympathize with the shitty cultural archetypes they've been bequeathed. Thinking about them with Albert King's gigantic guitar in the headphones blocking out their guinea-hen cackling, or watching (having a hand in) the lightbulbs going off over their heads in the classroom, or playing the blues for them, or even explaining to them at 2:30am that trying to "party" at your off-campus house with some little blonde who is so utterly stupid that she thinks she can "overdose" on weed is a bad idea, it's a lot easier to see them as persons, as individual jewels (flawed diamonds, maybe, lacking polish), and to get a perspective on how much they can use the help that adult, self-actualizing, responsible, impassioned role models (parents, teachers, ministers, etc) can provide. In the middle distance--in the traffic patterns, or the mass plagiarisms, or the "but we were just tryin' to have a little fun...Sir!" keg parties--it's a lot harder to cherish them.

But the Buddha didn't say "manifest compassion for some beings," or "...for those beings who are responsible," or "...for those beings who you think deserve it," or even "...for those beings who don't throw beer cans and piss on your lawn at 2:30am." He said "all beings."

Which, on the Friday of the first day of classes, means all the half-grown, half-formed, half-spoiled, half-perfect children in the room.

On the docket: finish up re-reading Cockrell's Demons of Disorder. I am reminded in this re-reading that Demons does a particularly wonderful job of locating behavioral archetypes (referenced by the titles of minstrel songs) in the careers of three individuals in the antebellum period: "Jump Jim Crow" (the raggamuffin, slow-talking, tongue-twisting dancer and leaper who emerges later in Uncle Tom's Cabin's Topsy and Our Gang's Alfalfa) in the life, career, and artistic choices of Thomas 'Daddy' Rice; "Zip Coon" (the flash-dressing, fast-talking, foppish dandy pimp who rolls again as Staggerlee and Snoop Dog) in the Trickster social outlaw George Washington Dixon; and "Old Dan Tucker" (the tall-tale-telling, giant-brag-spouting, frontiersman who strides across the landscape as the keelboatman Mike Fink, Fess Parker's Daniel Boone, or Hendrix's Voodoo Child) in the prototypical urban ethnomusicology of banjo virtuoso and blackface troupe leader Joel Walker Sweeney, who throws down again in the careers of "white boys playing the blues" like Mac Rebennack/Dr John, Johnny Otis, or Stevie Ray Vaughan.

In this respect, Cockrell is setting a pattern (locating certain American 19th-century archetypes in both the songs and the biographies of seminal blackface minstrels) which Rip Lhamon, in Raising Cain, picks up again as "lore cycles", finding the dance steps of the "Catharine Market 1820" in the buck-and-wing of Bojangles Robinson or the videotaped autobiography of MC Hammer.

These are great, great books (also pictured here: Bean's edited Collection Inside the Minstrel Mask, a compendium of short or pilot essays by a lot of the authors I'm already working with; and Rip Lhamon's Jump Jim Crow, essentially a source-book containing full transcriptions of hundreds of "Lost Plays, Lyrics, and Street Prose of the First Atlantic Popular Culture"), but so far, in all of my reading and re-reading as I prepare to go out of town for archival work on my antebellum painter, I haven't found any that have made one crucial further deductive step: the recognition that, for all the noxious racist stereotypes which blackface no doubt manifested--and which have been very successfully complicated as revealing a whole range of other reactions, by Cockrell, Eric Lott, and Lhamon among others--these early blackface minstrels were not only pop stars but also were engaging in a kind of urban ethnomusicology: the close observation and admiring imitation of black (syncretic, urban, northern or frontier) performance arts. These (going all the way back to Charles Dibdin in the late 18th-century ballad opera The Padlock) were the prototypical "white boys playing the blues." Yes, there was racism, and exploitation, and appropriation, and opportunism in their activities--"isms" which crop up in later instances of mainstream-culture appropriation--but those "isms" have been not unknown in the history of "formal" ethnomusicology as well.

Ethnomusicology, in this sense, is inevitably and universally an act of translation: someone goes somewhere and observes someone else doing something, and then returns, trying to explain--to translate--something of how that activity works, and what it means, to the original participants. That's what ethnomusicology does. What it yields, very very often, is an enrichment: not only of the opportunistic individual scholar's pocketbook, publication record, or CV, but also of the dominant culture. Dominant/mainstream culture has tended to appropriate from subordinate/minority culture, through all ages, societies, and situations, because it is at the margins that new art begins. Appropriation--and its loaded and sometimes racist cousin, representation--are at the heart of how culture is born, transmitted, and transmuted. Ethnomusicologists translate an unobserved minority or niche culture to another or majority culture--even if the end-goal of that translation is simply to reflect that dominant culture back upon itself. This is precisely what Lhamon, Lott, and Cockrell have shown the early blackface minstrels to likewise be doing. They were--in an arguable, incomplete, but nevertheless legitimate simile--the first urban ethnomusicologists.

And that vicarious outsider's dominant-culture view has always been with us, too. George Dixon blacking up (either on stage or in the prints of his inflammatory populist newspapers), Tom Rice imitating Georgia Sea Islands children's dance-songs for a heaving mass of "Bowery B'hoys" on the (truly riotous) stage of the Bowery Theatre, Joel Sweeney learning banjo-picking from Cincinnati stevedores and bringing that "participant observation" to the stages of America and Europe--they were playing to the citizens, the suburbanites, the middle-class voyeurs who were titillated by the outrageous public antics of the then-mass media.

So I guess that's why I stand with those blacked-up white boys, those prototypical urban ethnomusicologists, likewise lambasted before the bar of history by post-modernist cultural critics (usually not artists themselves), who want to say that we're "nothing but thieves," "guilty of cultural appropriation," or--to quote the well-known minority scholar of black music to whom I once had the (mistaken) temerity to say "I play black music", not recognizing that my musicianship in the idiom made her feel defensive--"just a bunch of white boys playing the blues."

So we are.

I have to try to learn to manifest the same compassion and awareness of immanent potential I feel for those nameless black informants who gave the world the past 200 years of its popular music, toward those loud-talking, iPod-enabled, cell-phone clutching, traffic-cutting, Paris-imitating, blond-highlighted, sorority-rushing, children, who imitate because nobody has ever taught them to create. My job is to show them how to do just that--if create, if not art, then an effective argument; if not an argument, then at least an effective individual life.

Just a bunch of white boys playing the blues.
Now playing: Allman Brothers - You Don`t Love Me

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