Thursday, April 10, 2008

Day 63 "In the trenches" (landscape in the sky edition)

Thursday/Hump Day of the pledge drive. Landscape's in the sky today--65mph winds and a whole lot of dust from off the cotton fields is in the atmosphere now. Lots of meetings today, lots of stuff to deal with--but also a good lesson with flute student, and a good meeting with the Diaspora seminar. The latter's lecture always a very interesting one, because it's where we present blackface minstrelsy, from its earliest roots in the 1830s solo song-and-dance performances of George Washington Dixon ("Zip Coon") and Thomas "Daddy" Rice ("Jump Jim Crow"), through the proto-pop bands like the Virginia Minstrels (who both created the idiom of American pop music, and left a raft of imitators in their wake across America and in Ireland and the British Isles as well), and into vaudeville, Tin Pan Alley, radio comedy, early "Talkies", and beyond.

Interesting challenge: I've been thinking quite consciously about blackface minstrelsy for at least the last three years (and, as a white musician largely involved with studying and performing black music for three decades, subjected constantly to the suspicion of exploitative or appropriative behavior throughout those decades), and so I see the tropes and echoes of the idiom throughout the balance of American popular culture. And, maybe because I've been thinking about it hard, writing about it, and reading great scholarship about it, I've come to see and to employ the nuanced thinking its noxious racism and undeniable artistic brilliance both demand.

Most students haven't: the youngsters perhaps have never heard of the idiom, find its racial caricatures absurd (and unfamiliar), and thus don't feel much knee-jerk guilt about enjoying its comic brilliance and musical pleasures, especially in the post-blackface idioms of vaudeville, Uncle Tom's Cabin, and Laurel & Hardy. The ones who are a bit older and more sophisticated do have an awareness of the racist implications in those later idioms, and are still uncomfortable with how to think about the conflicting issues of racism versus genius. So the task of the lecture is to both convey the history and to encourage a more direct, nuanced, thoughtful, historical, and critical response to the idiom and its paradoxes. An interesting pedagogical problem.

You have to begin from first principles: taking them back to the original actuality of the idiom--the caricatures of big lips and rolling eyes, ragged clothes and sashaying akimbo gait, and the implications of those; but also to the subversive, mocking, cakewalking cultural critique that both Anglo and African blackface slipped into their entertainments. There are versions of all the canonic blackface songs--"Jump Jim Crow", "Zip Coon", "Old Dan Tucker", and the rest--which go into great, lengthy, and very detailed social and cultural critique: just like the calypsonians of Trinidad, the sambistas of Salvador, and reaching all the way to the mocking praise-and-blame songs of the West African jeliyat.

It's worthwhile remembering a couple of things about blackface: (1) that it became a media phenomenon in the 1830s-'40s, which was precisely the same period during which Andrew Jackson's presidency had radically realigned public conceptions about who wasn't, or was, newly entitled to a vote in the democracy. Prior to Jackson's victory in the 1828 Presidential elections, the franchise was essentially limited to white males who were landowners. This was consistent with the British parliamentary model upon which the Republic was founded, which presumed that, even in the House of Commons, you had to own land in order to stand for Parliament. But the 1820s saw the US franchise extended to a much wider, much poorer, and (thus) more radical demographic. They were Jackson's constituency, and they (and their new power) scared the shit out of the old Anglo-Anglican aristocracy who had largely run the early Republic. So when TD Rice, in one version of "Jump Jim Crow" from 1832, sang:

Should dey get to fighting,
Perhaps de blacks will rise,
For deir wish for freedom,
Is shining in deir eyes...

Cho: Wheel about and turn about and do just so
Ev'ry time I wheel about I Jump Jim Crow

I'm for freedom,
An for Union altogether,
Aldough I'm a black man,
De white is call'd my brother.
He was preaching what was, in the context, revolution. And by doing it in the motley guise of "Jim Crow," or "Dan Tucker," or "Zip Coon," they reach back to the oldest archetypes of both European and African carnivale, and to that festival's mocking, wheeling, cakewalking critique of power.

In the guise of the Fool.

The great Eddie "Rochester" Anderson:

Dooley Wilson:

Ethel Waters and Eddie Anderson:

Duke Ellington, Buck & Bubbles, and the Hall Johnson Choir:

These people were geniuses. That they had to play caricatured roles in order to accomplish their genius lessens not their greatness, but only our own sense of entitlement to old and wrong valuations of culture.

Below the jump: landscape-in-the-sky; Springtime Blow on the South Plains.

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