1619, Chapter 14

For April 11


September 15, 1963. The church bombing in Birmingham, AL, which kills the four little girls. Both poems are about this event.

Youth Sunday, by Rita Dove

On “Brevity,” poem by by Camille T. Dungy

14: Music, by Wesley Morris

The 1619 Podcast version is # 3 of the podcasts on the NYT Listen to 1619 page. While Morris makes some of the same points, especially about the legacy of blackface minstrelsy and also about Motown, he approaches it from the other end, with an anecdote about the present-day and listening to super-di-duper white “yacht rock” from the 80s, and even there still being able to hear the Black music that IS, fundamentally, American music. And of course he has the sound examples that are missing from the text.

In the chapter itself, the story opens with the Motown hits that were playing when the Sixteenth St. Baptist Church was bombed, and the total dominance of Black-owned, Black-musicians-only Motown in the 1960s, and its insistence on the “irreducible humanity” of Black people. Like jazz, Motown aimed to be American music, not just “Black music” that was incompatible with Americanness because played by Black people even as white people loved it, listened to it, and appropriated it–wanting “second-hand Blackness” and “pasteurized jazz,” cleaned up and never transgressing beyond the palatable–tamed gospel music, American song book and doo wop. But Motown pushed the envelope a bit further, especially by making stars of Black people–even as Motown’s owner Berry Gordy insisted on “polish, decorum, and self-possession” not the wildness of Tina Turner and later Black rock’n’rollers. He provides a long, long list of Black pop musicians from Aretha Franklin to Lizzo (many of whom I do not know) and points out that they have dominated the billboard charts and the dance invention that shape American pop music taste, sustaining “parties in places that sustain no actual Black people.”

He then goes back to the beginnings: enslaved Africans arrive and bring their musical traditions with them, including the “ring shout”–dancing and chanting in a circle. Spirituals evolved from work songs + the Christian tradition (as far as white people would let Blacks participate in it even after conversion. In Slave Songs of the United States, 136 songs were collected by white abolitionists in the 1830s, and after the CW, a Black woman with advanced musical trainiing, Ella Sheppard, arranged some of this music for the Fisk Jubilee Singers–but, as Morris points out, with a layover of Westernized “fuss” that takes away some of the original spontaneity. But of course he also points out that before these versions were performed by the FJS and the Hampton Singers–by Black performers–they had been performed for decades by white people in Blackface as part of the Blackface minstrelsy tradition that began with Thomas Dartmouth “Daddy” Rice and had its peak, in the North in particular, between 1 840 and 1870. Even as BM is based on invented “dialect” and racist stereotypes, its popularity shows how hungry white audiences were for Black music–and how willing to appropriate and exploit it. As a combination of song, dance, speech, and later also theater (in the adaptions of snippets from Uncle Tom’s Cabin for the “UTC shows” that became ubiquitous), minstrel show tunes also became the basis of the traditional “white” songs by Stephen Foster (“Oh Susannah,” etc.) and Christy’s Minstrels had a band that basically became the instrumentation of bluegrass to rock. His conclusion, as in the podcast: “Paradoxically, perversely, minstrelsy’s grotesquerie deluded white audiences into feeling better about themselves” and into thinking that slavery wasn’t *that* bad. It also put Black performers in a bind: to be popular with white (=paying) audiences, they had to basically become BLACK Blackface minstrels, work with rather than against the racist stereotypes, or at best do some complicated trickster maneuvers to subvert from the inside (cf. Sampson, Blacks in Blackface).

This is why “the taint of minstrelsy” goes along with any Black performance for white audiences, from Louis Armstrong and Sammy Davis Jr. to Whitney Houston. As orators, Blacks could sometimes avoid this but as musicians, they were easily suspected of “going pop” and selling out: “The art form’s racism has proved poisonous to a race’s collective self-esteem,” and respectability became the double-edged sword: the only way to avoid the taint of minstrelsy, but also then be branded as “stodgy and uncool” and lacking “soul” (an accusation launched at Motown). “Something about white American’s desire for Blackness warps and perverts its source, lampoons and cheapens it even in adoration”–partly b/c white pop musicians “pounced and gentrified” each and every time. But he thinks there are exceptions when non-Black musicians do not appropriate but treat the Black tradition with “admiration and respect” and work with them (“blue-eyed soul” is what this might have been called in the 1970s). He claims that what makes Black music both “Black” and really the only kind of truly American music is its burdens, “centuries of weight” that create the “music of a people who have survived, who not only won’t stop but can’t be stopped”–and that this is what gives it its global appeal.