Keeping the American in African American

I’ve been working on a way of expressing my feelings about an issue which has come up through a lot of my recent reading – the relative influence of African Caribbean music on American music. The following, subject to change without notice, will get me started:

One particular thing that has got me going in the last few months has been my own personal research into the ‘roots of roots’ music, so to speak, relative to the pointed emphasis in some academic writing on the African and African-Caribbean sources of American song. While I generally concur on the importance of these lineages, more and more I have come to the conclusion that the academic obsession with such is a form of avoidance of the more complexly layered (and extremely disreputable) sources of the American vernacular. Meaning: if one looks at the direct autobiographical testimony of those who witnessed American song at early and crucial stages of its development- (like: Lafcadio Hearn, Kid Ory, Mance Lipscomb, the Kansas City oral histories, Louis Armstrong, Willie the Lion Smith, Baby Dodds, Cousin Joe, Jelly Roll Morton) one realizes that at a key time of the music’s early development and documentation – the late 19th and early 20thcentury – cultural forces of great power (and of both bluntly religious virtue and deeply personal vice) are in play which, essentially, bury the African and African Caribbean influence under other not only methods of survival and pleasure, but also new ideas of rhythm and swing – not so much as to make those influences unrecognizable (the clave is a peripheral aspect of New Orleans’ first jazz stirrings, and central to the rise of rock and roll; and the African-Caribbean triplet is central to jazz swing); but so as to change them into something very specifically American and radically different from the song forms we see in other parts of the post-African Diaspora.

American music exists in the 19th century as a series of interlocking hybrid forms related most directly to Southern music but also to the rise of a class of professional songwriters and the marketing of sheet music. Also essential to our understanding of the spread of new American music is early African American migration North and West, the rise of music education, and the resultant training of musicians(both black and white) for public brass bands in the North and South. In the late 19th through early 20th century various strains of American music come together and then separate through vehicles of public entertainments: minstrel, circus and tent shows, brass band concerts, vaudeville and other mobile/travelling forms. As recording technology develops, these styles divide themselves into distinctly different forms of indigenous popular music – into ragtime and professional pop song (which overlap and include things like “coon” and ragtime songs a la Ernest Hogan, Al Bernard, Irving Berlin, George M. Cohan, Sophie Tucker, Arthur Collins, Bert Williams, Chris Smith, Shelton Brooks), the blues, jazz, and even pop/gospel. Into the 20th century the music continues to change, and divide itself racially and stylistically. So we get hillbilly music (and there were black hillbillies) more generalized country forms (think breakdowns, shouts, early African American pre-bluegrass and then bluegrass; and then essentially white forms like Western swing, country and western, honky tonk, et al); and African American songster forms that are closely related to both minstrel composition and folk sources, as well as to professionally published sheet music (as in the work of African American songwriters like Alec Rogers).

Jazz and the blues transform themselves from country forms into urban music, though of course their players co-exist with their country brethren, some of whom work hard (particularly in blues and songster forms) to maintain certain musical and social traditions (see John and Alan Lomax’s incredible body of field recordings). White country music, indebted to its own religious and mountain aesthetic, absorbs, in its early years, both the blues and minstrel song traditions and splits itself into its own versions of sinner and saint.

In all of this and in these years of incredible musical ferment the African and African-Caribbean element is not so much discarded as it is buried under a tidal wave of American culture. What some see as a “watering down” of black music I see as a natural progression, the development of a pop aesthetic that is truly multicultural in the American way, and which leads to a complicated layering of black and white influences and performance practices. All of which is informed, in its rhythms, tonality, social applications, and textual meaning (and in a way that is both close to yet psychologically distant from its African roots), by an essentially and pervasively African American aesthetic.

I will add what I believe is the reason academics and others tend to hammer home the message of the Caribbean influence, to such an exaggerated extent – simply put, they tend to be uncomfortable with the disreputable origins of American song, the venues – like whorehouses, violent jukes, minstrel stages – that helped to incubate this incredible Diaspora of sound. But like it or not American pop is the offspring of whores and their accompanists, blackfaced whites AND blackfaced blacks, and other assorted lower-life characters and hillbillies. It is easier – let us say more historically “dignified” – to point in other directions. It is also less accurate, in my opinion. If you don’t believe me, start by reading Jelly Roll Morton’s Library of Congress interview; just be sure you get the unexpurgated version (“if you don’t shake you don’t get no cake….”)…..