Monday, November 12, 2007

"The Office" (Workstation series) 65 (archives edition)

Back in the archives.

Filling in gaps and answering questions that arose in the September visit. So far, it's the ongoing process of looking for things you want not to find: namely, bits of information that will/would contradict the hypotheses you've been formulating.

The hypothesis is fairly simple, but in multiple steps:

Given the relative dearth of written observation or reportage on the earliest roots of black-white minstrelsy (which is conventionally dated to 1843, when the Virginia Minstrels became a virtually instantaneous pop music phenomenon, but which has roots going back at least as far as 1827, to the first performances of George Washington Dixon and Thomas Dartmouth Rice), it is difficult to understand either the process, the performance practice, or the sounding results of early Anglo-African music. We have some information about how it looked, however, because in the first era of pop music publishing (in the form of sheet music), the visual imagery on the cover of the sheet music helped to sell the music inside. It is a remarkably consistent iconography, showing the bent knees, arms akimbo, waving hands, and twisted spines associated with the dancing.

The primary reportage on how the music sounded is based on how it looks on the page: in the form of the sheet music which was published in the 1840s as the idiom moved up the social scale, off the streets, and into the parlors and piano benches of the middle class. This sheet music notation, which has been "squared off" and standardized so as to fit the standard format of solo vocal (sometimes with a harmonized chorus) and easy piano accompaniment, may possibly tell us about the melodies that were employed, but can tell us nothing about the music "pre-squaring", and, most essentially, in performance. One thing we have known about African-American performance as far back as it has been in any way documented is that (a) it always involved dance as well; (b) it always involved participation and responsive improvisation; (c) it was capable of "cutting" or (to use a later terminology) "ragging"--that is, syncopating, or polyrhythmicizing, virtually any idiomatic music. The great ragtime professors said they could "rag" (it was a verb, before it was a noun) any music. Some of the very early cylinders of ragtime and pre-blues music similarly display an ability to blur bar lines, create hemiola, and, indeed, to create layers of rhythms--or polyrhythm. This is an ancient African technique, and is the cornerstone of a satisfying musical texture in West African traditional musics: a complete and satisfying sound is one that combines two or more interlocking rhythms (also a metaphor for satisfying community life). It is thus completely reasonable that a propensity to "polyrhythmicizing" simple melodies--a tendency which also shows up, albeit subtly, in Anglo-Celtic monophonic fiddle music--should predate the recording era, predate "ragging", and in fact constitute the fundamental "Virginia Essence" which was the described core of minstrelsy.

We have no notations of actual performance practice: we have a bare few sketches of melodies (Jump Jim Crow, Long Tail Blue, Zip Coon, Possum Up a Gum Stump), many of them borrowed from Anglo-Celtic tradition; we have a bare few descriptions of the actual technical details of the music and dancing of early blackface (the verbal descriptions, even into the modern era, of the dancing that accompanied the music are, despite their detail, more confusing than anything else).

But what we do have is pictures: the stylized cartoons from the sheet music, but, much more importantly, the precise, anatomically accurate, masterfully executed, sympathetically rendered, musically informed, and extensive paintings of William Sidney Mount, who knew and admired black musicians, lived and worked on the Catharine Wharft where sailors and fishermen from Long Island's free black communities landed and sold eels and danced to attract trade, knew and frequented the Bowery and Chatham Theatres where Dixon and Rice birthed their closely-observed imitations, and, decades later, when the European market had been primed by the American blackface troupes who swept Britain in the 1840s and '50s and he was asked to supply exotica to feed that market, reached back into his memory--and to the life of the black and white musicians who he grew up with, knew and admired on the streets of lower Manhattan and at the cotillions and barn dances of Long Island's North Shore, and painted works which are the cornerstone of American vernacular painting.

They also depict the cornerstone--the foundation stone--of the black-white synthesis that has sent American popular music around the world for the past 160 years.

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