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Music Making History: Africa Meets Europe in the United States of the Blues. In Nikongo Ba'Nikongo, ed., Leading Issues in Afro-American Studies. Durham, North Carolina: Carolina Academic Press, 1997, pp. 189-233. Copyright © 1997, Carolina Academic Press. Reprinted with permission.
Music Making History:
Africa Meets Europe
United States of the Blues
William L. Benzon
Abstract: European-American racism has used African America as a
screen on which to project repressed emotion, particularly sex and aggression.
One aspect of this projection is that whites are attracted to black music
as a means of expressing aspects of themselves they cannot adequately express
through music from European roots. Thus 20th century expressive culture
in the United States has been dominated by an evolving socio-cultural system
in which blacks create musical forms and whites imitate them. It happened
first with jazz, and then with rock and roll. The sexual revolution and
the recent floresence of blacks in television and movies suggests that
white America has had some success in using black American expressive forms
to cure its affective ills. The emergence of rap, from African America,
and minimalism, from European America, indicates that this system is at
a point where it is ready to leave Western expressive culture behind as
history moves to the next millenium.
Introduction: Music in Society and Culture
After emancipation . . . all those people who had been slaves, they needed
the music more than ever now; it was like they were trying to find out
in this music what they were supposed to do with this freedom: playing
the music and listening to it -- waiting for it to express what they needed
to learn, once they had learned it wasn't just white people the music had
to reach to, nor even to their own people, but straight out to life and
to what a man does with his life when it finally is his.
--Sidney Bechet, Treat It Gentle
I went to the depot and set my suitcase down
The blues overtake me and tears come rolling down
--Blind Lemon Jefferson, Easy Rider Blues
When I am elected President of the United States, my first executive order
will be to change the name of the White House! To the Blues House.
--Dizzy Gillespie, 1964 presidential campaign
The cultural character of the United States of America has been dominated
by two interacting cultural systems . One of these derives from Europe
and the other from Africa. The European system dominates in matters of
intellectual and scientific culture and, despite the birth of modern democracy
in the American Revolution, I think we need to concede the point in political
matters as well. The United States may well be the first modern democratic
state, but that democracy, and the state apparatus, has deep roots in Europe.
When we turn to expressive culture matters are quite different. In some
expressive domains, literature, architecture, and perhaps even painting,
the European influences have dominated though most of American history.
But in other domains the cultures of sub-Saharan Africa have had a profound,
even a determining, influence. Sport is one such arena (Ashe, 1988, cf.
Early, 1989, pp. 115-195, 208-214). Religion is another. With its dramatic
conversions, speaking in tongues, vigorous song, and theatrical preaching,
the fundamentalist strain of American religion took the impress of African
America almost two centuries ago (cf. Bloom, 1992, pp. 48, 238; Philips,
1990, p. 231, Small, 1987, pp. 88 ff., Williamson, 1984, p. 38). Throughout
the nineteenth century minstrel shows were a major form of popular entertainment
and carried the African influence in comedy, song, and dance (Chase, 1966,
pp. 259-300, Crouch, 1976, Handy, 1941, Southern, 1983, 228 ff.,Watkins,
1994). This influence came to full force in American popular music of the
twentieth century, where the African-American element drives the train.
Whether or not that influence has been so profound that we should remove
the United States from the honor roll of Western nations is not clear to
me, though I think it a reasonable possibility.
This New World dialog between Africa and Europe has not, of course, been
an equal opportunity affirmative action interaction. Throughout American
history white racism and domination have undermined the egalitarian and
democratic ideals which have otherwise been so important in the nation's
history. Thus the determinative effect which African America has exercised
in expressive culture has been against the grain of political and economic
power. That raises a question: How and why is it that a racist European
America has allowed African America such cultural power? This is as deep
and important as any question one can pose about society and culture in
the United States of America (cf. Morrison, 1992).
To begin our exploration we need to make a clarification prompted by the
current movement for multicultural education, a major purpose of which
is to combat racism by fostering respect for diverse cultures. That purpose
rests on a weak premise, for the most vicious racism is not primarily about
culture. Such racism is, in Elisabeth Young-Bruehl's (1996) terminology,
an ideology of desire; it is an active psychosocial formation whereby the
racist attempts to alleviate his or her own psychological conflicts by
hating and dominating members of another social group. The fact that members
of the hated group may eat different foods, wear different clothes, sing
different songs, dance different dances, and worship different gods is,
at best, a secondary aspect of prejudice; such things give the racist something
to hide behind when justifying his or her actions and attitudes, but they
aren't what motivates the racism. We need to be clear on this matter for
we are going to be investigating both cultural interaction and racism.
What interests me is how a certain social and psychosocial phenomenon,
racism, has resulted in a certain multicultural process, European Americans
learning to make music and to dance like African Americans.
I also wish to make a point about the fundamental importance of rhythm
and music in human life. Recent work on expressive culture by David Hays
(1992, pp. 189-190, 196-197) and on dance and military drill by William
McNeill (1995) suggests that muscular bonding, to use McNeill's term, is
essential to human society. By muscular bonding McNeill means a sense of
community and solidarity created by moving together in groups, groups which
dance together or engage in military drill together. If Hays and McNeill
are on the right track, and I am assuming they are, then music and dance
are not secondary matters, subordinate to speaking, writing and calculation
in cultural importance. On the contrary, they are the necessary foundation
of social cohesion and health; they have causal force in society and can
foster social change. Thus the African American achievement in those arenas
is as important as any cultural achievement by any group, any where, at
any time. The fact that so many European Americans have adopted and adapted
African-American dance and music for their own is a social and cultural
phenomenon of the highest importance.
Nor is this phenomenon limited to North America. For African-American music
has by now influenced culture all over the world. As Eldridge Cleaver observed
almost three decades ago in Soul on Ice (1968, p. 203):
And although modern science and technology are the same whether in New
York, Paris, London, Accra, Cairo, Berlin, Moscow, Tokyo, Peking, or São
Paulo, jazz is the only true international medium of communication current
in the world today, capable of speaking creatively, with equal intensity
and relevance, to the people in all those places.
Since then soul and rock and hip hop have made the world tour as well.
People the world over have adopted and adapted African-American expressive
practice to suit their own needs.
2. Improvisation and Composition in Cultural Style
In her seminal study of Patterns of Culture, Ruth Benedict
(1934) argued that each culture exhibits a pattern by which its various
customs, beliefs, and attitudes are integrated. Cultures are not miscellaneous
grab-bags of traits, they are patterned wholes. European and African America
do have cultural differences. My purpose in this section is to explore
those differences through examining music. However, in the time-honored
manner of those who infer the existence of fire from observations of smoke
I assume those music differences reflect differences in the structures
and processes in the societies which produce the music (see Small 1987).
My thinking on this topic begins in my experience as a musician who has
performed in both European styles, symphony orchestra, concert band, brass
band, and African-derived styles, jazz, rhythm and blues, world beat. It
is obvious to me that these are two very different musical worlds. At times
I am astounded as I attempt simultaneously to contemplate them both. It
is a rich world indeed that is home to such musics. At the same time I
wonder: if these musics are so different, what does that difference imply
about the cultures from which these musics originate?
In one view, human nature is everywhere the same. Different cultures are
just different "languages" for articulating and expressing that
same nature. That is not my view. To be sure, the human biological heritage
is much the same from group to group. But that biological heritage includes
a nervous system which takes over two decades to develop (Benzon and Hays,
1988. pp. 314 ff.) and which is, especially during the early phases of
that development, open to environmental influence. Nurture thus has plenty
of opportunity to influence human nature. Because of that we must consider
cultural differences to be intrinsic, not extrinsic. One does not "wear"
a culture as easily and superficially as one wears a suit of clothes nor
can one move from one culture to another as easily as one moves from business
to casual attire.
Expressive culture is essential to organizing the biological seeds of desire
and feeling into a way of life (Geertz, 1973, pp. 80 ff.; Hays, 1992; Benzon,
1993a). Expressive differences reflect different ways of shaping actions
to meet desire, of interpreting the feelings which accompany those actions
and desires. Thus the differences between European and more-or-less European-derived
music and African-influenced music betoken different cultural styles. To
get a sense of those styles, let us begin by comparing the two musics.
Note that, while my argument is about the interaction of African-American
and European-American music in general, I want to confine my discussion
in this section to a comparison of jazz and classical music. I have two
reasons for this: 1.) There are many genres of both black and white music
in the United States. Discussing them all would be complex, but that complexity
would not appreciably alter my central points of contrast . 2.) Jazz
is the only form of African-American music which has developed to the same
level of sophistication as classical music (see Benzon, 1993b). Classical
music thus represents Western culture at its most sophisticated while jazz
represents an equally sophisticated African-derived culture.
Let us begin with feeling: Do the two musics provide cultural stylization
for the same range of emotions? The most relevant work on emotion in music
has been done by Manfred Clynes (1977) as part of a general investigation
of emotional expression. Clynes has found basic temporal patterns, pulsations
or rhythms, through which we express our feelings. He calls these patterns
essentic forms . His investigations have involved people from both
Western and non-Western societies and he has found the same patterns in
all his subjects. This suggests that the essentic forms are biologically
given and not cultural conventions. While the set of essentic forms seems
to be open-ended, there are seven basic ones: love, grief, awe (or reverence),
joy, anger, hate, and sex.
Although these essentic forms are biologically given, whether or not they
are incorporated into music depends on the codes of a culture's stylization--to
use the term favored by Albert Murray. A given culture isn't obligated
to codify the full biological legacy of humankind; or, to give the matter
a different spin, no culture can work out all the possible ramifications
of human biological possibility. African America has included sexuality
directly in the codes of its music while Europe (and European America)
has done so only indirectly, unless, of course, following the example and
tutelage of African America. To say that jazz is comfortable with sexuality
is not, of course, to imply that it is obsessed with it. Jazz embraces
a full range of emotional expression, with sexuality taking its place in
that range. And, correlatively, to say that classical music cannot deal
with sexuality is not to say that the essentic form for sexuality never
appears in classical music, only that its appearance is not routine.
Now, in saying this, we must confront a problem, for sexuality is at the
center of racist stereotyping. In talking of the sexual nature of jazz
are we thus falling into a racist trap? No, and for two reasons. In the
first place, the racist places a negative value on sexuality while I am
implying either a neutral or a positive value (take your pick). More deeply,
the racist thinks he is talking about biological nature; he is asserting
that folks with dark brown skin, flat noses, and tightly curled black hair
are hypersexual and out of control because it is in their blood. I am not
making any assertions about "blood" (that is to say, about genetics);
I am talking about culture. Certain folks have chosen to give public shared
expression to sexuality by allowing sexually expressive rhythms in their
music and dance. Getting these rhythms into that music and dance requires
the kind of discipline and control which comes from patient and dedicated
practice and has nothing to do with the wanton license running riot in
the racist imagination. It is one of the paradoxes of expressive culture
that the highest expression of such discipline comes in performance which
is effortless and free. On this matter, however, jazz and classical music
come out the same. Regardless of the differences between their emotional
patterns, both require discipline and both come alive only in freedom and
Thus we need not feel the anxiety of political correctness in asserting
that the sexuality which is so very obvious in jazz--to both its devotees
and its detractors--is not at all obvious in classical music. In saying
this I should note that, while Clynes has investigated music, he has not,
to my knowledge, done a comparative study of the appearance of the various
essentic forms in various musics. Nor have I done so. Thus in talking about
the presence of sexuality in jazz and its absence in classical music I
am only giving my subjective estimate of what is going on in these musics.
It is not, however, a wildly idiosyncratic estimate.
In discussing these matters with friends some have lobbied strongly on
behalf of the sensuousness of "Là ci darem" from Mozart's
Don Giovanni , which is lovely music; but how common is this in
classical music? I've recently become fond of a passage about a third of
the way into the Arietta of Beethoven's C minor Sonata (No. 32,
Op. 111) where, after anticipatory probing, the music breaks into marvelous
waterfalls of jazzy descending right-hand figures ending in rocking chords
which are met by rolling ascending left-hand figures . When I played
this passage for a friend, without telling him what he was listening to,
he said it sounded like someone trying to bridge the gap between Mozart
and Fats Waller. While classical critics are able to note the jazz affinity
here, they are clearly uneasy. Thus Wilfrid Mellers in his study of Beethoven
and the Voice of God (1983) notes that "the metre becomes a boogie
rhythm, rendered seraphic. This is not a joke" (p. 259). Of course
it is not a joke, but the fact that a distinguished critic feels impelled
to talk like that is a sign of how atypical, and threatening, sexuality
is in this music. Sexuality is there. But as an exception, not a common
occurrence. Then we have the famous Liebestod from Wagner's Tristan
and Isolde, which is very passionate, but it isn't overtly sexy; the
sex is thoroughly sublimated, with no release, only exhaustion. No doubt
there is much sublimated sex in the romantic composers, but there is a
difference between getting it straight and getting it tricked out in disguise,
no matter how fine the cloth, how even the stitching, how elegant the fit.
With the twentieth century the finery is peeled away; Ravel's Bolero
is notorious, as is Stravinsky's Rite of Spring . Here the sexuality
is overt, but both are late in the evolution of classical music, at the
end of its major development, and their eroticism did not become a standard
practice. A bit closer to the bone, those Europeans who didn't have the
time or opportunity to learn the sophisticated stylings of the classical
masters didn't have even sublimated sex in their music. They had no sexual
stylization at all. That is, there was to publicly affirmed sexuality.
When the opportunity came, those who wanted it learned it from African
I don't think we are dealing with a simple matter of rejecting sexuality.
It is a more pervasive rejection of the body. Consider:
Even the greatest Western music, on the order of Bach and Mozart and Beethoven,
was spiritual rather than physical. The mind-body split that defined Western
culture was in its music as well. When you felt transported by Mozart of
Brahms, it wasn't your body that was transported. The sensation often described
is a body yearning to follow where its spirit has gone . . . The classical
dance that grew from this music had a stiff, straight back and moved in
almost geometrical lines. The folk dances of the West were also physically
contained, with linear gestures. The feet might move with wonderful flurries
and intricate precision, but the hips and spine were kept rigid. (Ventura,
1987b, p. 86)
Ventura, writing an account of the migration of musical techniques from
West African ritual to contemporary rock and roll, makes a more sweeping
statement than Clynes, but they move in a similar direction. Classical
music is somehow decoupled from the body, while African-American music
The liveliest dances of Beethoven's last quartets no longer incite the
feet to dance. Instead, the "heart inside dances." Beethoven
found a new way of uncoupling the motoric output from the expression of
essentic form by allowing inner forms to dance without corresponding motor
outputs. . . . In his music the meaning of essentic form appears no longer
as a communication directed at motoric outward expression. (Clynes, 1977,
We can see a minor consequence of this attitudinal difference in the rhetoric
of critical censure. In criticizing the performances of particularly expressive
musicians, such as the late Leonard Bernstein or the contemporary violinist,
Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, classical critics sometimes question the propriety
of the body movements and facial expressions of the performer, implying
that such movement is mere self-indulgent exhibitionism . Whatever role
a musician's body movement has in enabling in his or her expressiveness,
it is not clear why comment on that physical style should enter into a
critical assessment of the performance. Would the same music have been
acceptable if it had been delivered of a musician stiff of spine and serene
of face? It is one thing for opponents of a musical style to criticize
the body language of its performers, as opponents of rock and roll castigated
Elvis Presley for his peripatetic pelvis, but the critics of classical
gestural gyration are friendly to the music. On the other hand, I have
never read a jazz critic make similar remarks. Thus, for example, while
many critics didn't like what the late Miles Davis played in his last two
decades, none of them ever complained that he moved in an unseemly way
(for an example see Crouch 1990a). The physically expressive classical
musician seems to violate that uncoupling of body from music which Clynes
talks about. But, since jazz is comfortable with the body, comment on the
performer's movements has never been part of the jazz critic's arsenal
This rejection of the body, in turn, translates into a musical technique
which relegates rhythmic complexity to a secondary, if not tertiary, role.
Relative rhythmic simplicity may well have been a precondition of the harmonic
development which has been so important in classical music, for that development
requires a precise vertical alignment of different instrumental lines which
would be difficult to achieve if each part were rhythmically complex (Rockwell,
1983, p. 51). This was a precondition consistent with the overall rejection
of bodily experience which has marked Western culture. However, when jazz
musicians confronted classical music, that harmonic language was fully
developed and they had no difficulty adapting it to the rhythmic intricacies
of bop. African America thus discovered the miracle of linking the harmony
of the spheres has to the rhythms of the body.
Important though the basic pulse and rhythm are, jazz and classical music
differ in many other ways. This is not the place to attempt a full comparison
. But one other difference demands attention, that between improvising
and composing. Though there were limited opportunities for improvisation
in classical music, especially in the Baroque and early Classical eras
(cf. Neumann, 1986), it had become a thoroughly notated music by the early
nineteenth century. Improvisation has always been important to jazz, even
in the carefully crafted arrangements of the big band era. With the evolution
of bop-style jazz, improvisation reached new sophistication and complexity
(Benzon, 1993b, Schuller, 1989, p. 845).
If you think of improvisation as composition on the fly, then it is difficult
to see how it could compare favorably with the carefully worked and reworked
compositions of classical composers. However, the notion of jazz improvistion
as spontaneous creation out of nothing is a romantic myth, a kissing cousin
to natural rhythm. What happens on the bandstand reflects hours and months
and years of study, thought, and practice, with musicians working out several
approaches to improvising on each and every tune they play (Berliner 1994).
Yet, in one important respect, classical music is arguably the more sophisticated
music. Jazz has not been able to create the large-scale architectures that
classical composers have--Collier (1987, pp. 145 ff.) and Schuller (1989,
pp. 148-153) have discussed this question in relation to the extended works
of Duke Ellington. However, composition and improvisation are but means
to an expressive end; their particular devices are subordinate to that
purpose. It is a mistake to judge one set of technical devices as though
they were functioning in the manner of another and rather different set
of devices. What is relevant is how effective these devices are in achieving
their expressive end.
In this context, the end is what David Hays (1992) has called a reorganizational
epiphany. When Leonard Bernstein (1993, p. 284) says "By the time
I come to the end of Beethoven's Fifth, I'm a new man," he is talking
about reorganization. Over time such experience helps lessen psychological
conflict, bringing about greater and greater psychological coherence. Given
that both bop jazz and classical music achieve this end, their different
techniques for achieving it must reveal much about their respective cultural
Unfortunately, I am not prepared to offer an explanation of how jazz and
classical music achieve epiphanies, but I am willing to do a bit of beating
around this particular bush. Trust is fundamental to the process and psychoanalysis
provides the clearest example of the role which trust plays in affective
reorganization. The patient trusts in the good intentions and competence
of the analyst and is thus willing to expose and express deep psychic hurts.
This allows the analyst to guide the patient in working through inner conflicts
to achieve more effective ways of dealing with the world. Trust is the
womb in which reorganization grows. Similarly, I speculated in a paper
on narrative (Benzon 1993a) that the reader trusts a novel's narrator,
which is the novelist's device for guiding reorganization. That trust allows
the reader to experience imaginary events which might otherwise provoke
too much anxiety. When those events are resolved at the end of the novel
the reader has been changed a little, and in the direction of being more
capable of dealing with the conflicts embodied in the novel.
I can offer two illustrations of what musical trust is about and from that
work toward arguing that jazz and classical achieve that trust differently.
I've logged many hours playing rhythm and blues in bars and nightclubs
and have been puzzled about people's reluctance to dance to an unfamiliar
tune, even if it has exactly the same beat as a familiar tune which had
them happily dancing only minutes before. It is as though the unfamiliar
melody makes it difficult for people to trust that basic beat won't suddenly,
in the middle of the tune, shift into some crazy Balkan eleven/eight meter,
making chaos out of smooth well-rehearsed four/four dance moves and transforming
the dance from a romantic opportunity into a survival test. At a more sophisticated
level, consider this anecdote told to me by a semi-professional jazz musician
(Joe Wheeler, personal communication). He was playing piano in a lounge
on New Year's Eve; the piano's action was thick and he struggled for half
an hour until someone requested Thelonius Monk's "Round Midnight."
For some reason, unexplained, his technical struggle disappeared and he
began playing with imagination and liveliness well above his normal level.
He continued that way for the entire evening, playing so well that he attracted
the attention and admiration of the musicians playing for the dance in
the adjacent ballroom. The fact that he was able to play so well for an
entire evening indicates that he had the musical knowledge in his head
and fingers. What he didn't have was sure access to the attitude, the behavioral
mode (Benzon and Hays, 1990b, Hays, 1992), which allowed him fluently to
implement that knowledge in performance. Getting into the mode is a matter
of trust, of having faith in one's ability, and in the music itself.
But, classical music and jazz have different ways of engineering that trust.
In classical music creative responsibility has been divided between composers
and performers. Composers create the overall structure and provide the
fine texture while performers bring the music to life, providing the breathing
nuance--recall Clynes' essentic forms--which binds texture and structure
into living experience. When a classical performance begins, both performer
and audience "know" that, in some sense, the work is already
finished, existing in some ideal realm of composed Platonic essences. Trust
is invested in that transcendent realm and all are moved. In contrast,
the jazz musician, and audience, invest their trust in the immanent
process though with the music grows and evolves. There are few composed
essences in the jazz world; the improviser starts with a framework and
from that constructs the music. As a practical matter, both classical and
jazz musicians can experience states of ecstasy, of standing outside oneself
as the music flows, but I'm willing to bet that, if we could trace the
paths of neural energy implementing that ecstasy, we would find interesting
differences between the two .
The classical style of compositional essence parallels Western philosophical
preoccupation with absolute truth, a preoccupation which has been severely
stressed by the evolution of science beyond the certainties of the nineteenth
century and by deconstructivist and postmodern thinking. The gap between
the imagined musical essence--represented by notes on pages of paper--and
the physical process of performing the music mirrors the Cartesian split
between mind and body which has dogged Western metaphysics since the seventeenth
century. Jazz immanence doesn't propose such a gap between the music itself
and the process of performing the music. There is no gap between the ideal
and the real, between musical space and performance time. In jazz the music
and the performance are indistinguishable. Jazz can live and thrive on
constructions which exist only in the act of creating them.
And, with this contrast, we return to our major theme, composition and
improvisation as the organizing patterns of Western and African-American
culture, respectively. It is not difficult, for example to see a thematic
similarity between classical music and football, on the one hand, and jazz
and basketball, on the other hand (on games and cultural style, see Roberts,
Sutton-Smith & Kendon, 1963). Football involves highly specialized
players organized into elaborately structured units, enacting preplanned
plays, and directed by a quarterback representing the coach/composer. Basketball
uses a smaller number of players, whose roles are less rigorously specialized,
and involves a free flowing style of play which is quite different from
football. A football game is composed while a basketball game is improvised.
African-Americans dominate basketball but, while they are prominent in
football, they have been kept from the key role of quarterback, the director
of the coach's composition.
Similarly, it is not difficult to see a likeness between classical music,
football, and the hierarchical structure of large corporations, the ones
that are now "downsizing" and "delayering" to cut costs
and gain flexibility. When we consider jazz and basketball in this context,
what comes most quickly to my mind is the advice of current management
gurus about the need for a very fluid corporate structure, one which changes
quickly and has multifunctional workers organized into relatively flat
structures. Thus Tom Peters (1992) uses the carnival as one of his key
metaphors. Carnivals run lean, quickly adapt to changing markets, and have
employees who play multiple roles. Carnivals, and the corporation of the
twenty-first century, are improvisatory. Likewise, when Michael Maccoby
(1990, pp. 474-475) talks of the need for "corporate men and women
who can work interdependently within a corporate structure that stimulates
and rewards individual initiative and continual improvement" he describes
a pattern of vigorous individuality in service of a group creation which
is a fundamental requirement of jazz. Duke Ellington's sidemen were all
individualists who played their best music in Ellington's band; leaders
such as Dizzy Gillespie, Art Blakey, and Miles Davis were known for so
successfully fostering the growth of their musicians that many of them
went on to become leaders themselves. Jazz culture stresses the importance
of finding your own voice, your own style, even to the basic sound a player
gets from his or her instrument. In contrast, classical culture stresses
adherence to an ideal sound and is doubtful about individuality, even from
virtuoso soloists. Thus it is no surprise that the business world is beginning
to see books with titles like Leadership Jazz (DePree, 1992) and
Jamming: The Art and Discipline of Business Creativity (Kao, 1996).
These improvisatory corporations thus exhibit a pattern which reverses
that which Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (1988, p. 122) finds in various important
African-American novels (e.g. Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching
God , Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man ). These novels use a Western
literary form to express African-American content. The high-tech corporations
have an African-American style with a white technological content. Unfortunately,
few of these corporations are African-American enterprises. Between the
informal mores and prejudices of the corporate world and the unfortunate
relationship between much of African America and the educational system,
the corporate world remains largely European American. However, to the
extent that these more fluid corporations are run by relatively young men
and women, they are run by people who have, for example, grown up listening
and dancing to rock and roll and have thus been significantly influenced
by African-American expressive style--a topic we'll return to later in
this essay . What I'm suggesting is that this new corporate style has
not been created out of thin air. Rather, this new corporate style reflects
a new personal style, and that personal style owes a debt to expressive
devices developed in African America. If black folks hadn't invented jazz
early in the century, then white folks would have been too stiff to have
begun remaking their corporations in a more flexible manner as the century
comes to a close.
One final contrast suggests itself. Classical music is the expression of
a fully formed culture. Europe was under no pressure to conform to any
standards other than its own. Jazz, however, is the creation of people
under constant pressure to conform to conditions imposed on them. As Martin
Williams (1983, p. 256) asserted, "Jazz is the music of a people who
have been told by their circumstances that they are unworthy. And in jazz,
these people discover their own worthiness." There is a sense, then,
that jazz is the most advanced creation of a culture which has not been
able to fully reveal and realize itself. Whether or not the next century
will see that realization is question as open as it is exciting .
Society, Psyche, and Culture in North America
Cultures have interacted with and influenced one another at many times
and places throughout human history. Much of this is no doubt aimless and
opportunistic drifting and mixing in which songs, stories, tools, technologies,
social customs, etc. move from one group to another. Much of the interaction
between Africans and Europeans in North America has, no doubt, been of
this kind. However, over time the United States has evolved a social structure
which puts a strong selective bias on the process. There is order and purpose
to the cultural interaction between black and white society. In a way which
defies existing categories of socio-cultural analysis, groups of people
are influencing and reacting to each other on the group level .
Let us start with an analogy, courtesy of the old television program Star
Trek . One episode centered on a being called an empath. If a person
was ill or injured, the empath could touch that person, and through the
touch, absorb the trauma into herself and thereby cure the person. The
empath, however, was limited in her ability to absorb injury. That limitation
provided the episodes's tension; for the Enterprise crew had more injuries
than she could safely absorb. European America has used African America
as such an empath, a circumstance which is at the heart of the standard
canon of American literature. One of the books we find there contains a
story about a poor white boy who flees his alcoholic and abusive father
in the company of a slave. As Toni Morrison points out, in Mark Twain's
Huckleberry Finn "Jim permits his persecutors to torment him,
humiliate him, and responds to the torment and humiliation with boundless
love" (Morrison, 1992, p. 57). Huck and Tom inflicted their grievances
on Jim and he absorbed them. The overall question is whether or not European
America can be cured before African America is destroyed.
I take it as given that Western culture is one of emotional restraint
and repression. This repression, so my argument goes, is at the core of
the psychodynamics of racism. We can begin with a curious and disappointing
passage in Chapter 9, "Revolution," of W. E. B. Du Bois' Dusk
of Dawn (1940, pp. 770-771). Du Bois says: "My own study of psychology
under William James had predated the Freudian era, but it had prepared
me for it. I now began to realize that in the fight against racial prejudice,
we were not facing simply the rational, conscious determination of white
folk to oppress us; we were facing age-long complexes sunk now largely
to unconscious habit and irrational urge..." And that was it. He acknowledged
the relevance of psychoanalytic thought, but did not use it in developing
an analysis of racism. Subsequent intellectuals haven't done a great deal
to write the discourse Du Bois only implied (for more implication, see
Ellison, 1972, pp. 100, 311) . Economics has become a routine intellectual
instrument in the examination of racism, but psychoanalysis has not.
Still, enough has been done to serve our purposes. Freud argued that, in
general, much behavior is driven by unconscious desires. Moving beyond
the individual psyche, he argued, perhaps most explicitly in Civilization
and Its Discontents (1962), that Western civilization is built on a
foundation of emotional repression. Racism is a society-wide manifestation
of that repression. The basic point is simple: many of the characteristics
racists have attributed to blacks are simply the repressed contents of
their own hearts and minds which they have projected onto African Americans
(Baldwin, 1963, p. 95 ff.; Gay, 1993. pp. 69 ff.; Morrison, 1992, pp. 37
ff., 51-52; Young-Bruehl 1996). In particular, the heightened sexual desire
and potency, and the greater emotionality, which whites have insisted on
seeing in blacks has more to do with unconscious white desire than it does
with black behavior .
In an essay originally published in 1947, Talcott Parsons (1964, pp. 298-322)
explored the dynamics of aggression, arguing that Western society is so
structured that aggressive impulses are often generated in situations where
they cannot be directly expressed, creating a need for ethnic and national
"Others" who can be scapegoated. Calvin Hernton explored the
sexual dynamics of racism in a study originally published in 1965 (and
reprinted in 1988). Erik Erikson made a general theoretical statement in
the final chapter of his Identity: Youth and Crisis (1968, pp. 295-320).
He argued that no culture has been able to adapt the full biological range
of human desire and feeling to its patterns. Each culture cultivates some
characteristics at the expense of others. The neglected characteristics
may then coalesce into a negative identity which members of a given
society will often project or displace onto members of some other society
or culture. Joel Kovel (1984) has undertaken an investigation of American
racism in which he argues for different psychological processes in the
North and the South. Most recently, Elisabeth Young-Bruehl (1996) has undertaken
a psycho-social analysis of prejudice--including antisemitism, sexism,
and homophobia in addition to racism--in which she identifies various kinds
of prejudice and attempts to identify the historical conditions which give
rise to them.
Such psycho-social mechanisms have shaped Europe's encounter with the peoples
of Africa. Winthrop D. Jordan (1974) has shown that Europeans were disposed
to see blacks in the image of the emotionality and sensuality they were
rejecting in themselves. In the late Renaissance blacks were likened to
beasts; in Bacon's New Atlantis (1624) the "Spirit of Fornication"
was depicted as "a little foul ugly Æthiop" (p. 19). Jordan
notes that Englishmen "were especially inclined to discover attributes
in savages which they found first, but could not speak of, in themselves"
(22-23; see also Gilman, 1985). Thus before the European settlers of North
American had any substantial contact with Africans, they had a lascivious
place prepared in their minds through which to understand and interact
with them. Shakespeare's Caliban was to be a lens through which the people
of a whole continent would be viewed and interpreted.
Joel Williamson has taken this psychological line in examining the lynchings
which once plagued this country, especially in the two decades straddling
the turn of the century (Williamson, 1984, 117 ff.; see also Brundage,
1993; Du Bois, 1940, pp. 730, 747, 772; Fredrickson, 1988, pp. 172-182;
Harrington, 1992, pp. 157-162). Many of the victims were black men often
accused of some sexual offense against a white woman; in some cases the
offense was real, in many it was not. Further, many of these lynchings
were extravagant public exhibitions with wide-spread participation. That
is, it wasn't a matter of a few drunken thugs breaking into the jail at
night to get the offender--perhaps with the tacit approval of the sheriff--and
then hanging him from a tree for all to see in the morning. Sometimes lynching
preparations would go on for days, with newspaper articles about the alleged
crime and the impending punishment, and with railroads offering special
excursion fares to take people to the scene. The actual lynching would
then take place in broad daylight, with thousands of people in attendance,
vendors attending to the needs of these thousands, with photographers and
reporters recording it all for posterity. People might take fingers of
the victim as souvenirs. It was not unusual for tens or hundreds of men
each to fire a bullet into the hanging body or bodies. Such public exhibitions
seem much like the public tortures and executions of medieval Europe and
obviously had the full approval of the local and regional community, with
at least the tacit approval of national authorities. Williamson concludes
that African-American males were being used as scapegoats for European-American
discontent and that, while some of that discontent was certainly generated
by current social displacement, some also stemmed from sexual and emotional
The thrust of these various studies is the same: racists are punishing
others for their own sins. Western civilization has not created adequate
means for directly incorporating a satisfying range of human emotion and
behavior into its cultural practices. Consequently, it has been forced
into racism as a one means of dealing with the resulting repression and
However, if the lynching is the prototypical scene of racist violence,
there is a contrasting prototypical scene of racism, one which is not dominated
by physical violence. Consider those night clubs, such as the Cotton Club,
where the performers were black but the clientele was exclusively white.
Why did all those white people seek black entertainment? No doubt most
of them came for the erotic floor show, but some of them were interested
in the music. Why? The question is not a new one, and the answer is obvious--in
the same way that the applicability of Freud to racism is so obvious that
it has been little discussed. European Americans have liked African-American
music because it has expressive powers which are lacking in European and
European-American music (Crouch, 1990b, p 83; Keil, 1966, p. 49; Small,
1987, p. 154; Williams, 1983, p. 254). In particular, as we've seen above,
African-American music is comfortable with sexuality, while European music
is not . People may have come to the Cotton Club to see black bodies
enact jungle pseudo-rituals on stage; but they left with the expressive
sound of African American music boring into their brains.
In an important variant of the Cotton Club scenario, a white child--no
doubt a descendant of Huck Finn--sneaks into the club to hear the black
musicians play jazz. This variant was featured in Michael Curtiz's movie
Young Man With a Horn (1950) where young Rick Martin idolized Art
Hazzard--this movie was, in turn, based on Dorothy Baker's novel, of the
same name, based loosely on the life of Bix Beiderbecke, the first major
white jazz musician. More recently, Hollywood producer George Lucas (responsible
for the Star Wars and Indiana Jones movies) created a two-hour
episode of his television show The Indiana Jones Chronicles in which
young Indiana gets jazz lessons from Sidney Bechet (cf. Murray, 1970, pp.
101-102). I take this scene as a metaphor for the role of jazz (and African-influenced
music in general) in the white world. While the jazz club is ostensibly
a place of entertainment, it also functions on a deeper level as a school,
one in which the teachers are black and the students are white. They are
learning a cultural stylization of emotion which is more adequate to their
needs than the one they learned at home, in school, or in church. Where
the lyncher, and his descendants, is desperately trying to preserve the
restrictiveness of his culture, the white jazz fan, and his descendants,
is trying to break free from that restrictiveness by learning elements
of a different culture . In the night club scenario, Africa is the
teacher and Europe the student (cf. Asante, 1987, p. 59).
Unfortunately the psychodynamics of racism doesn't end here. The need for
projective psychological relief is an equal opportunity affirmative action
agent of social destruction. Black Americans have demonized whites even
as they have been demonized. The Black Muslims provide the most obvious
example, with Elijah Muhammad's story of the evil Mr. Yacub who created
a race of "blond, pale-skinned, cold-blue-eyed devils--savages, nude
and shameless; hairy, like animals, they walked on all fours and they lived
in trees." These white devils then turned a black "heaven on
earth into a hell torn by quarreling and fighting" (Haley, 1965, p.
167; for different examples, see e.g. Crouch, 1990c, pp. 200-202, 231-244;
Early, 1989, pp. 199-207; Young-Bruehl, 1996, 481 ff.). Considering that
African Americans have legitimate grievances against European Americans,
the problem of sorting out the justified anger from the projective demonization
seems hopeless. From that hopeless confusion Dr. Martin Luther King, El-Hajj
Malik El-Shabazz--aka Malcolm X, Detroit Red, Malcolm Little--struggled
to discriminate right from wrong and thereby exercised moral and political
leadership which gave hope to millions.
3.2 Tertium Quid: The Artist and Negative European Identity
Europe was not, of course, limited to projecting its negative identity
onto Africans. People of other races also bore this imprint, which is the
central circumstance, for example, of E.M. Forster's A Passage to India
(cf. JanMohammed, 1985). But we need not look solely to prejudices directed
from one ethnic group to another. The romantic stereotype of the artist,
as developed by and for the middle-class during the nineteenth century,
also embodied Europe's rejected affect. Thus, behind the much-discussed
topic of black self-hatred we find the topic of white self-hatred.
We can see this romantic conception emerging in the Western imagination
with Goethe's publication of The Sufferings of Young Werther in
1774. To be sure, Werther wasn't an artist in the sense of being vocationally
dedicated to art, though he liked to paint and sketch. He was a love-addict
who committed suicide because he would never be able to have the woman
he loved; she was married to another. He serves as an archetype for the
artist because he was a man of intense feeling who was alienated from his
society. As such, he proclaimed that "I have been drunk more than
once, my passions have never been far from madness, and I regret neither;
for, at my own level, I have come to appreciate why all extraordinary people
who have achieved something great, something apparently impossible, have
been inevitably decried by society as drunkards or madmen" (Goethe,
translated by Steinhauer, 1970, p. 33).
The attitudes embodied in this book coalesced around the figure of the
artist as a bohemian creature who dressed differently, thought differently,
was given to vehement proclamations, perhaps a bit of debauchery, and who
was, in general, somewhere between eccentric and crazy--the van Gogh and
his ear syndrome. Thus, in his very influential Silence (1961, p.
127), the avant-garde composer John Cage approvingly quotes Rilke's remark
that he had no interest in being psychoanalyzed because "I'm sure
they would remove my devils, but I fear they would offend my angels."
That is, madness is not just something which afflicts artists, among others,
but rather it is the source of their creativity.
The trope of the rebellious artist, consumed with feeling, is a vehicle
through which Western culture reminds itself of the affective life it has
forsworn. The Western artist feels what the ordinary citizen cannot. Through
identifying with the artist, the citizen gets access to those emotions
which are otherwise held in check. The solid citizen dresses severely,
works hard, and feels little or nothing; at leisure this good citizen reads
a novel, attends a play, or an opera (perhaps La Boheme ) and there
encounters the artist who feels all that the citizen must deny. In that
encounter the citizen gets safe and vicarious access to a richer emotional
range. When the artist self-destructs the citizen is reminded that emotion
is dangerous. Thus the citizen is safely returned to the daily routine
of emotional repression and drab dress.
The self-destructiveness of Western artists, so convention tells us, is
simply the price they pay for their intense feeling. As long as we believe
that they must pay that price, we accept our less intense, but safer,
lives. We accept our repression because we believe it to be the only way
to a secure life. We cannot tolerate the possibility that a life of strong
feeling is not self-destructive but, on the contrary, could be deeply creative,
nurturing, and sustaining. It is thus no accident that the artists in Western
movies, novels and plays generally die. That is the only way we can tolerate
them. The idea of a mentally balanced artist, whether painter, dancer,
jazz musician, etc., doesn't make sense. Most Westerners would not be prepared
to recognize such a person as a real artist. Western culture's emotional
repression is thus no more hospitable to its own artists than it is to
blacks. It must scapegoat both .
The artist, the creator of expressive culture, thus serves as a tertium
quid between European-American and African-American culture; it is
a cultural position within European-derived culture through which
white folks could permit themselves to learn from social outsiders of
African-derived culture . The formal and informal institutional arrangements
of white society place black society in the role of expressive outsider,
a point brilliantly allegorized in Robert Zemeckis's film Who Framed
Roger Rabbit . In the film's Los Angeles there are two worlds, that
of human beings, and that of Toons, classic cartoon characters from Betty
Boop to Elmer Fudd. The Toons and their world are consciously modeled on
white stereotypes of blacks (Harmetz, 1988). The Toons are born entertainers;
they sing, they dance, they tell jokes, they act in movies. And they are
obviously outsiders, a whole society used by the humans to provide for
human expressive needs.
Because European-American society came to assimilate African-American culture
to the general role of the romantic artist, it has been possible for African
Americans to pursue their own expressive imperatives while at the same
time providing entertainment which European Americans not only like, but
are willing to imitate. The system is deeply flawed; but it has been remarkably
creative. Thus, over time, an economic arrangement, chattel slavery, has
spawned a side effect which has transformed, not only American culture,
but world culture, for African-American music is heard and emulated on
all continents (Rothstein, 1991, p. 32, Wiora, 1965, p. 158-160). The enslavement
of Africans was justified by an ideology which mistook relative cultural
simplicity for inherent inferiority and allowed Europeans to use Africans
as a projective screen on which they viewed the same aspects of themselves
which they had projected into their own artists. Over time that projection
has evolved into a socio-cultural vehicle though which whites have adopted
some of the expressive traits of those original Africans and their descendants.
Thus, in a cultural sense, those Africans have become ancestors of us all.
Let us proceed with another text from W. E. B. Du Bois. This one is
from The Souls of Black Folk (1903, p. 3), chapter one, paragraph
After the Egyptian and Indian, the Greek and Roman, the Teuton and Mongolian,
the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight
in this American world, a world which yields him no true self-consciousness,
but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world.
It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always
looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul
by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.
One consequence of this double vision is a concern for "uplifting
the race" which looks toward European-American standards (cf. Harrington,
1991, pp. 209-211). Thus Du Bois himself disapproved of jazz (1940, p.
702)--what would you expect from a middle-class man educated to the culture
of Harvard and the University of Berlin?
However, African America has not been completely dominated by the European
gaze. Africa survived, albeit highly transformed. And it is around this
African core that black Americans forged a cultural identity of their own.
The scholarly recognition of this African core begins in 1941, when Melville
Herskovits published The Myth of the Negro Past . At the time his
thesis was a novel one--that American blacks had retained substantial traits
and practices from African cultures. Herskovits, and others following in
his wake, documented so many retentions that it is difficult for serious
thinkers to continue denying the African influence .
Music is one of the most obvious cases; but it is by no means a simple
one. For the slaves were often forbidden to perform their native music.
In particular, the drums were widely banned in North America and, as a
consequence, West African rhythms did not survive there (Gillespie, 1979,
p. 318, Oliver, 1970, p. 56, Southern, 1983, p. 182), though they are prevalent
in the Caribbean and in Latin America, where the drums were not banned.
What did survive was a strong rhythmic pulse and a tendency to superimpose
groups of three notes over a ground beat based on binary patterns (Schuller,
1968, Collier, 1978). Similarly, the blues scale, with its microtonal "blue"
notes, seems to reflect both African and European tonal practice, though
it doesn't exist on either continent (Schuller, 1968, 44 ff.).
Most importantly for our purposes, the eroticism of African-American music
is taken over from African music. This is an eroticism linked to religious
ritual (cf. Jones, 1963, p. 92). Michael Ventura (1987a and 1987b) has
given a succinct historical account of the route from African religious
ceremony through New World voodoo to jazz and on to rock and roll, the
point being that there is a comparatively recent historical linkage between
African religious practice and African-American musical practice. For voodoo
is a syncretic body or religious belief and practice in which West African
deities are disguised as Christian saints. Voodoo ritual draws fairly directly
on typical West African rituals (Mulira, 1990).
New Orleans is central to this development . It was an exception to
the general ban on drumming; for slaves were permitted to practice their
rituals, drumming and all, in Congo Square. Thus African ritual practice
stayed alive well into the 1880s (Hobsbawm, 1993, p. 5). Since many whites
watched the ceremony, Congo Square was, in effect, a precursor to those
later clubs with black entertainment and white clientele (but see Starr,
1995, pp. 39-40). At the same time many Creoles were learning European
music; for example, there was a Negro Philharmonic Society in the 1830s
(Collier, 1978, p. 59; 1993, pp. 189 ff.). New Orleans was thus the scene
of a most intimate mixing of African and European musical practice.
The resulting musical hybrid is one in which the sacred and the sexual
are closely connected. This connection is not, of course, unknown in European
culture. But it is one which was emphatically rejected in prevailing doctrine,
with celibacy ordained for Catholic clergy while Protestants sects generally
taking a dim view of the body and its evil pleasures. African-American
music embodies a different view, with a rich interplay between African-American
sacred music and various secular forms--blues, rhythm and blues, soul,
jazz . Consider, for example, the remark by the great bluesman, B.B.
King, that "Gospel singers sing about heavenly bodies and we blues
singers sing about earthly ones" (Smith, 1988, p. 149). He clearly
differentiates between blues and gospel, but implies that there is an abiding
link as well. The outrageous androgynous Richard Penniman (Little Richard)
has moved back and forth between preaching the gospel and singing rock
and roll, and he's hardly the only African-American musician/preacher,
though he's the best known (Keil 1966, pp. 147 ff., Lincoln and Mamiya
1990, p. 362). Similarly, soul music, with Ray Charles its prophet, Aretha
Franklin the queen and James Brown the king, is based in gospel music (cf.
for example, Peter Guralnick 1986; Harrington, 1992, pp. 194-202)--a connection
made in Robert Townsend's film, The Five Heartbeats , in which one
of the musicians is a preacher's son and another overcomes his self-destructiveness
by being born again. Between black popular music (and dance as well), with
roots in black religion, and white derivatives from it, much of contemporary
America's stylization of sexuality and secular love is derived from West
African religious ceremony.
It is around this core of religious and musical practice that African America
has forged a sense of cultural integrity and link to the African past.
Black pride and cultural awareness was not invented in the nineteen sixties;
it has a long history (Stuckey, 1987; Murray, 1970, 171-188). One telling
index of this awareness is the question of the name to be used in designating
African Americans, an issue which has been discussed and debated among
African Americans since the early nineteenth century (Stuckey, pp. 193-244).
Playing the blues is a facet of African-American expressive culture. Knowing
that the blues has a history, and that that history is yours, is an aspect
of cultural nationalism. Such cultural nationalism often comes into defensive
play when European Americans adopt versions of the blues for themselves.
4. Music in the Making of History: Blues Train to the Future
Now we are ready to enter into the heart of my argument, which is that
the psycho-cultural blues train outlined in the previous section has been
a driving force in twentieth-century American culture. When I say "driving
force" I mean explicitly to assert that it has brought about change
in the world, change not only in music, but in the persons and societies
conditioned by the music.
The job of examining this blues train and understanding how how its systems
interact in American culture began with Blues People , by Amiri
Baraka, then writing as LeRoi Jones (1963), and has been followed by Charles
Keil (1966, pp. 43 ff.) and Nelson George (1988). They have uncovered a
pattern of interaction between African-American and European-American musical
culture which goes like this:
- ) African-Americans create a musical style.
- ) European-Americans adopt the style for their own use.
- ) The most adventurous African-Americans abandon the style and propose
a new one.
This has happened successively with minstrelsy, ragtime, traditional
and swing jazz, rock and roll, and perhaps most recently with hip hop.
The first step is no more mysterious than any other manifestation of human
creativity, though, as we have no recordings before this century, most
of the initial cultural crossing is invisible to us. By now there should
be no mystery about the second step. Whites adopt the style because it
has stylistic resources they admire, allowing them to express aspects of
their experience which are not easily accommodated by musical forms deriving
from Europe. Or, since we want to avoid thinking in terms of music as expressing
a pre-existing human essence, the African-American style shapes a cultural
style more adequate to their biological nature than does the prevailing
repertoire of European forms.
However, the white adaptation often seems anemic and lifeless--"white-bread"
is the colloquial term--and, because it is generally more commercially
successful, this is a source of resentment. And so, the theory goes, blacks
propose another style in an effort to reclaim the music, to construct and
affirm a unique ethnic identity. This part of the analysis is inadequate.
The resentment is real, and it certainly is part of the motivation for
stylistic innovation; African America has a strong need to protect the
integrity of the expressive language it uses to construct public affirmation
of its values. But too much emphasis on resentment and cultural possessiveness
tends to deny black music a life of its own, to see it as primarily reacting
against white borrowing . Thus, when Baraka talks about the bop style
of jazz as being a reaction to white swing music (Jones, pp. 181 ff., Baraka,
1990, p. 66-67) he misses the fact that jazz has a developmental imperative
rooted in its own dynamics (Benzon, 1993b, cf. Keil, p. 45). The fact is,
as Stanley Crouch (1990b, 71-72) has noted, Baraka's resentment of whites
leads him to devalue the music he ostensibly defends, reducing it to a
defensive reflex and thereby denying the fecundity of its ultimately African
roots and demeaning the freedom and dignity it achieves.
When one style of music becomes thoroughly known, the best musicians seek
the challenge of creating a new style and a significant portion of the
audience will be happy to follow them, for boredom afflicts us all. This
is one kind of process when the new style is more sophisticated than the
old, as was the case when jazz moved from traditional to swing, and then
from swing to bop (Benzon, 1993b). Just why living systems of all kinds
evolve toward more sophistication and complexity is not well understood,
but that it happens is obvious (cf. Benzon and Hays, 1990a; cf. Csikszentmihalyi,
1993). However, we also see evolution from one state to another with no
increase in complexity. Much of the stylistic change in music is of this
kind. Independently of the imperatives of ethnic identity, such stylistic
change would occur through a combination of boredom and the free flow of
cultural ideas made possible population movement and by the various twentieth-century
As for the weakening of the music at the hands of white adaptors, there
is nothing surprising in this. However much white audiences and musicians
may admire black music, they are have a different cultural background.
When creating their own music they will borrow as much as they can and
suit it to what their background will permit them. As John Rockwell has
noted (1983, p. 167) this is a free choice, not something imposed on the
white public by nefarious music moguls (cf. Ressner, 1990). And, in the
last analysis, we have to acknowledge that some white adaptors--Benny Goodman,
Frank Sinatra, the Beatles come to mind--have made music that need apologize
to no one.
4.1 The Blues: "Trouble In Mind"
European Americans readily acknowledged the expressive gifts of their
African slaves (Chase, 1966, pp. 76 ff.) In the eighteenth century the
Rev. John Davies of Virginia wrote a letter to John Wesley in which he
observed that "the Negroes, above all of the human species I ever
knew, have the nicest ear for music. They have a kind of ecstatic delight
in psalmody" (Chase, p. 80). African Americans provided a rich variety
of music for themselves, and at the behest of their white masters. For
our purposes it is enough to acknowledge that this music, black and white--spirituals,
work songs, dance tunes, "coon" songs, etc. (for historical sketches
see Collier, 1978, 3-55, Chase, 1966, pp. 232-323, Southern, 1983)--existed
and that whites enjoyed and used it. But one genre requires special attention,
that is the blues.
The blues did not come directly from Africa, but it certainly has African
elements (Oliver, 1970). Just when it crystallized as a specific form is
not certain, though the late nineteenth century is a good guess (Collier,
1978, p, 37; Palmer, 1981; Southern, 1983, pp. 330 ff.). More important
than when and where is the matter of why: Why was the blues born? In Blues
People Baraka suggested that the blues evolved when African Americans
took their new-found freedom and confronted a society which had no place
for them as free men and women (Jones, 1963, p. 55):
With the old paternalistic society of the South went the simple role
of the Negro in the Western world. Now the Negro was asked to throw himself
into what was certainly still an alien environment and to deal with that
environment in the same manner as his newly found white "brother"
had been doing for centuries....The post-slave society had no place for
the black American, and if there were to be any area of the society where
the Negro might have an integral function, that area would have to be one
that he created for himself.
While the older musical forms, the dances, hymns and spirituals, the
work songs, and so forth, continued, a new musical form was needed to meet
and fulfill the expressive demands presented by the new social and moral
situation confronted by most African-Americans. That form became known
as the blues, and the blues came to be the foundation of much of African-American
secular music up to rap and hip-hop. The blues is to African-American music
what the sonnet is to English poetry, a basic form, to be mastered by all
with aspirations to excellence, which has been put to the most various
expressive uses .
Thus, while often sorrowful, sadness is not the defining essence of the
blues (Murray, 1976, pp. 57 ff.). The blues is more abstract and general
than a particular emotional tone. Blues music is often joyful, ironic,
confrontational, witty, and worldly wise. It is also a highly individual
form of expression, both in lyrical content and in performance presentation;
a solo performer told about his or her own experience (Jones, 1963, pp.
65-76; Levine, 1977, pp. 222-223). In the more technical terms of musical
device and structure, the blues is a set of expressive conventions and
strategies--12-bar AAB form, I IV I V I harmony, call-and-response, the
blues scale--within which African Americans have articulated a full view
of life as generations of musicians improvise extensions, emendations,
expostulations, emancipations, and ecstatically lubricious transubstantiations.
As Dizzy Gillespie so often observed, before there was the universe, there
was the blues.
While most early blues performers appear to have been male, in the second
and third decades of the twentieth century a blues known as the classic
blues emerged as a distinct genre, mostly performed by female vocalists,
of which Bessie Smith became the best known. W. C. Handy, known as the
Father of the Blues, collected and arranged many of these songs, with the
"Memphis Blues", "St. Louis Blues" and "Beale
Street Blues" among his best-known. The blues has developed many forms
throughout the twentieth century, varying between regions, adopting electric
instruments after World War II (Keil, 1966), and functioning as a cultural
well from which other musical forms could draw inspiration and ideas. One
of these forms became know as jazz, which began consolidating in the teens.
4.2 Jazz: "It Don't Mean a Thing If It Ain't
Got That Swing"
If the blues is one tributary feeding into the jazz delta, then ragtime
is the other. Straddling the turn of the century, ragtime was primarily
a piano player's music and was strongly influenced by dance forms and the
military march (Collier, 1978, p. 51). Scott Joplin was the best known
exponent of the music, and his aspirations went far beyond what he was
able to realize in his lifetime--his opera, Treemonisha , wouldn't
receive a full performance until 1972, fifty-five years after Joplin's
death in 1917 (Collier, 1978, p. 51-53, Schonberg, 1981, pp. 160-163).
Just when jazz finally emerged as a distinct style is uncertain. But it
was going strong by the mid-teens.
New Orleans, or traditional jazz, is relatively simple in its devices,
but, catalyzed by Louis Armstrong, it quickly evolved into the more sophisticated
styling of swing. Jazz became the popular music of the second quarter of
the century, naming first the Jazz Age of the twenties, and then the Swing
Era of the thirties. Americans of all ages and ethnicity danced to the
beat of the African diaspora. Jazz also traveled to Europe, where it was
treated with aesthetic and intellectual seriousness it did not enjoy at
home. In time, jazz conquered the rest of the world (cf. Wiora, 1965, pp.
Jazz attracted the attention of classical musicians (Ansermet 1919) who
began to incorporate some of its devices into their music as they had drawn
on various European folk traditions (Bernstein, 1993, pp. 49-64, Hodier,
1956, pp. 245-263, Schuller, 1990). By this time the classical tradition
had taken its central techniques to their limits and many composers were
casting about for new inspiration, new scales, different compositional
devices, and more rhythm (Benzon, 1993b; Kramer, 1988; Wiora, 1965, p.
194-195). At the same time, European artists such as Pablo Picasso were
responding to African sculpture (Arnason, n.d., pp. 120-122; Clifford,
1988, pp. 196-200; Ogren, 1989, p. 146: Soyinka, 1987, p. 769) and Sigmund
Freud was diagnosing the emotional ills of Western culture. Europeans were
ready for a change and jazz give it to them.
Popular though jazz was, it did not receive universal approval (Ulanov,
1952. pp. 107-108, Ogren, 1989, pp. 103-104, 156 ff.; Stowe, 1994, pp.
30 ff.). In particular, it was denounced for its sexuality. For example,
a group of New York citizens formed a commission that complained about
"slow jazz, which tempo in itself is the cause of most of the sensual
and freakish dancing" (Collier, 1983, p. 121). In 1926 the city of
New York passed the first in a series of regulations intended to restrict
opportunities for live jazz performance, though the regulations were never
stated in those terms (Chivigny, 1991). At one point, Duke Ellington was
moved publicly to deny that jazz was responsible for a rash of sex crimes
. This disapproval, of course, did not keep whites from listening to
the music nor from playing it; white teens and young adults followed the
black and white swing bands (Stowe, 1994, pp. 43) and white players swelled
the ranks beginning in the early twenties (Collier, 1978, pp. 123 ff.;
Peretti, 1992) .
The net effect was an influx of African-American musical ideas into Tin
Pan Alley and Broadway--for awhile black musicians and dancers thrived
on Broadway (Douglas, 1995; Rose, 1989, pp. 46-80; Stearns and Stearns,
1994; Watkins, 1994). White swing bands, from Benny Goodman to Sammy Kaye
conquered popular music, with the great black bands of Duke Ellington,
Count Basie, Jimmie Lunceford and others playing to a more restricted house
(Stowe, 1994). Inevitably, the white bands played sweeter and less expressively
than the black. European America admired and desired the particular expressive
vitality of jazz, but there were limits to how deeply it could accommodate
itself to that expressiveness. Meanwhile the most adventurous jazz musicians--including
Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonius Monk--invented bop during the
early forties. Jazz is a music which slipped the yoke of racist oppression
and, in bop, created a style which elevated improvisation to the same level
of sophistication European classical music had achieved (Benzon, 1993b).
Bop was Art with a capital "A". As A. B. Spellman (1970, p. 193)
observed, "The bebop era was the first time that the black ego was
expressed in America with self-assurance."
Bop artists went beyond their immediate tradition and explicitly searched
other musics for techniques and inspiration. In the late forties Dizzy
Gillespie (1979, pp. 317 ff.) hired a Cuban drummer, Chano Pozo. Since
the drums had not been banned in Cuba, African rhythm survived there intact;
when Gillespie brought Pozo to his band, he thus reestablished contact
with African rhythm. Art Blakey traveled to Africa in 1948 and 1949 and
brought African techniques and, later on, drummers back to America (Brown,
1988; Weinstein, 1992, pp. 50-51). In 1956 Dizzy Gillespie became the first
jazz musician to go on a world tour sponsored by the U. S. State Department
(Gillespie, 1979, pp. 411-427). His band was organized by the same Quincy
Delight Jones, Jr. who would later become a vice president of Mercury Records
and win fame and fortune as the producer of Michael Jackson's most successful
albums (Ostransky, 1988). In the sixties Elvin Jones continued investigating
African polyrhythms and studied Indian rhythms as well (cf. Feather, 1966,
p. 169); he moved the drummer from an accompanying role to one of full
collaboration with the horn-playing soloists. John Coltrane investigated
Indian music to expand the possibilities of melodic improvisation in jazz.
Jazz musician have have continued to search the globe for musical ideas.
However, this increased sophistication had a cost, for it demanded greater
sophistication from the listener than swing and traditional jazz. With
sophistication in short supply, the jazz audience shrank and jazz ceased
to be a strong and direct force in popular music. The blues continued to
evolve independently of jazz and, in the late thirties and early forties
small "jump" bands developed as an offshoot of the big bands
(Keil, 1966, pp. 61 ff.; Collier, 1978, 449; Ventura, 1989b, pp. 88-89).
This music would become that grab-bag called rhythm and blues and it would
emerge on the far side of World War II and the Korean War as the seed bed
and inspiration of rock and roll.
From the beginning, jazz had a white audience (Collier, 1983, pp. 88 ff.;
1993, pp. 219 ff.), an audience it would keep throughout its history to
the present day. I am unaware of any figures from jazz's early days, but
the following figures concerning interest in jazz, based on a 1982 study
by the U. S. Bureau of the Census, are worth examining (Horowitz, 1990,
Number of Adults
Attend Live Events
Watch on TV
Listen on Radio
Listen to Recordings
While the percentage of black people is larger than the percentage of white
people in all categories, the number of whites is so much larger that,
in absolute terms, the white jazz audience is larger than the black; the
percentages for "other" are between black and white in three
of four categories while the absolute numbers are smaller than either.
If we consider just those who attend lived events, the category implying
the most substantial commitment, we have 2,620,500 blacks and 12,901,950
whites, almost five times the number of blacks. Just when the absolute
number of white jazz fans became larger than the absolute number of blacks
is not known; but these 1982 figures do not reflect a dramatically new
situation. Similar percentages must have existed for decades. The inspiration
and major innovators are black, but the audience has been largely white
for most of jazz's history.
4.3 Rock: "Roll Over Beethoven"
Simultaneously the mid-fifties gave us the civil rights movement and
the birth of rock and roll. Both shocked mainstream America. The civil
rights movement produced protest music which, in the sixties, would merge
with rock to become a generalized music of political and cultural protest.
It also provided a paradigm for political action which inspired the anti-war
protests of the sixties.
As for rock and roll, its roots are in the rhythm and blues of musicians
like Big Boy Crudup, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, and Bo Diddley
with musicians like Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Bill Haley taking
it into the white world (Ennis, 1992; Guralnick, 1994; Palmer, 1990; Puterbaugh,
1990; Ventura, 1987b, pp. 89 ff.). And there it was soundly denounced by
older whites for its lawless sensuality (Martin and Segrave, 1993; Schipper,
1990); considerable political effort, including Congressional hearings,
was marshaled in an effort to rid America of this nasty music. Once again
the morals of America's youth were being undermined by sexy music--writing
in 1987 (pp. 68-81), the conservative scholar Allan Bloom gives a reasoned,
if not reasonable, account of this rejection of rock and roll.
Unlike the swing era, however, this time music became a generational issue
(Ennis, 1992, pp. 283-312; Hobsbawm, 1994, pp. 324-327; Palmer, p. 46).
In the twenties, thirties, and forties, young and old alike, black or white,
danced to much the same music. But rock and roll split the European-American
world into youths and elders. Those who reached adulthood by the beginning
of the fifties did not, by and large, dance to rock and roll, which thus
became a music for adolescents (see Early, 1989, pp. 99 ff.). And as those
adolescents grew older, and their younger siblings moved into puberty,
rock and roll became the expressive catalyst for a generation of cultural
and political protest. By the mid-sixties, many of the best and brightest
sons and daughters of the European-American middle class were joining the
civil rights movement, protesting the war in Vietnam, chanting and meditating,
taking hallucinogenic drugs, proclaiming and acting on sexual freedom,
growing concerned about the environment, revising gender roles, and, in
general, trying to create what became journalistically known as the counter-culture.
All of this activity was reflected in the lyrics of rock and roll and energized
by its beat. White middle-class youth had adopted black rhythm as the expressive
catalyst for their assault on the culture they had inherited. They danced
to a different drummer and dreamed of forming a new society grounded in
Rock and roll developed and became polymorphous, with many of the most
important performers coming from England (Ennis, 1992; Gilmore, 1990).
In various ways, the Beatles harmonically and melodically, Bob Dylan lyrically,
and Jimi Hendrix with his outrageous jivometric guitar virtuosity, rock
achieved a level of musical and lyrical sophistication comparable to the
best of Broadway and Tin Pan Alley and of swing-era jazz. In the mid-fifties
Bo Diddley had introduced what came to be known as the Bo Diddley beat
into rock and roll; that beat was a standard West African rhythm which
made its way here via the Caribbean. Other musicians mated rock with every
conceivable musical style (Pond, 1990). One strain, heavy metal, substituted
anger for the sexuality which rock had inherited from African America.
Meanwhile, the civil rights movement developed a more militant side and
black cultural nationalism proliferated and became more visible to white
America. As African-American cultural nationalism became national news,
the musicians continued to produce new music. Marvin Gaye, Otis Redding,
Aretha Franklin, James Brown, Stevie Wonder and Co. gave us soul; George
Clinton funk; and Ray Charles did everything. The electric urban blues
of musicians such as B.B. King flourished and was recognized and adopted
by European Americans. Jazz musicians confronted the same limitations of
harmonic structures which classical composers encountered early in century
and developed an avant-garde that espoused jazz free of all rules and structures
(see Benzon, 1993b; Collier, 1978, 454-478; Litweiler, 1954). In some of
this music, anger came to replace sexuality at the music's expressive core.
At the same time, the foundations were laid for "classicizing"
jazz. In the late sixties Rahsaan Roland Kirk began performing the whole
history of jazz, from traditional New Orleans, through bop, to free jazz
(Barkan, 1974), while the avant-garde Art Ensemble of Chicago made reference
to that entire history, though not actually performing in those various
styles (Rockwell, 1983, pp. 164-175). This effort would bear fruit in the
eighties when a whole new generation of jazz musicians, led by the New
Orleans trumpeter, Wynton Marsalis, would embrace older, more conservative,
jazz styles as their primary expressive vehicle, consciously proclaiming
that jazz has a history which performers must keep current through the
playing of all its styles, not just the most recent ones.
On the whole, my sense is that this crossing of African- and European-American
music was more extensive in its effects than that of the swing era. That
it helped drive a wedge between the so-called baby boomers and their elders
is the surest sign of this. And the broader cultural exploration catalyzed
by rock and roll was more extensive than that of swing. Neither oriental
religion nor drug use were new; nineteenth century European musicians,
poets, and intellectuals experimented with opium and hashish and knew Hindu
literature, philosophy, and mystical practice. But the sixties and seventies
saw members of various Eastern religious sects soliciting contributions
in every airport and hallucinogenic drug use became common recreation.
None of this is directly African American, but African America provided
the music which became the dominant and most widely shared expressive vehicle
for all this activity. Blacks showed how to slip the yoke of repression
and young whites proceeded to sew wild oats in every field they could find.
Finally, hidden in the background, the computer came of age. Computer courses
began appearing in colleges during the middle sixties. I can remember my
freshman year at the all-male Johns Hopkins when one of my classmates generated
considerable interest with a female nude printed by a computer in a pattern
X's and O's; that was 1965. Over the years some students would become captivated
by computers and become hackers, living for computing the way their Dionysian
counterparts lived for sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Hacking developed
into a counter culture of its own (cf. Levy, 1984, Turkle, 1984). Yet,
it shared a theme with the more publicized world of the flower-bedecked
hippies: mind-expansion. The hippies sought mind expansion in drugs and
meditation; the hackers sought it in doing vastly clever things with computers,
even attempting to make the machines think Personal computers and video
games were invented in the late seventies and some of the hackers went
into big business, and some of those had counter-cultural dreams of changing
the world through computers. During the middle eighties computers would
meet reggae and rock and roll in the world of science fiction, yielding
cyberpunk . And yet, as we'll see in the next section, African rhythm
remained just around the corner.
4.4 Rap: "U Can't Touch This"
As the United States rolled into the late seventies African America
proposed a new music: rap, or hip-hop (George, 1988, 1992; Costello and
Wallace, 1990; Gilroy, pp. 1993, pp. 33-34, 103-110; Rose, 1994; Samuels,
1991). In the late seventies black performers such as Michael Jackson and
Lionel Richie became so successful in modifying their music to more effectively
cross over to white audiences that a vacuum began to develop in popular
music, which no longer satisfied the expressive needs of the black audience.
Rap emerged to fill that vacuum. While rap, like all genres, has its antecedents,
e.g. the tight rhythms of James Brown, the verbal games and poems of the
street corner, it has features which make it a new point of musical departure:
- It employs a technique of musical collage which depends on an extant
library of recordings.
- It is the most insistently rhythmic of the black genres, reducing melody
and harmony to a minimal, and mostly background, role.
- It also has the most elaborate lyrics.
- It often substitutes anger for the sensuality which had been basic
to earlier forms.
The joint effect of these factors is that rap does not follow directly
from the blues and gospel base which had been the cradle of African-American
basic musical expression throughout this century--a point we will return
to later. Rather, rap looks to verbal combat, oral narrative, and rhythm
as its points of departure.
On the first point, rappers use fragments of extant recordings to create
a background for the foreground rapping. This began in a multiple turn-table
technique in which one performer created a background of fragments from
various sources while creating a strong rhythmic pulse through scratching
a record with a turntable needle. With the advent of digital recording
technology this evolved into an elaborate and sophisticated technique of
digital collage. That makes it the first musical genre the existence of
which depends on modern recording technology. It is one thing to make full
use of recording technology to facilitate creating music which, in principle,
could have been made otherwise; that has been going on in popular music
at least since the Beatles recorded Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club
Band in the mid-sixties. Synthesizers and multitracking are enormously
convenient; but, for the most part, music made with this technology could
have been made more conventionally by different means. But the rappers
take fragments from various different recordings and electronically combine
them into a background which thus becomes a kind of archeological record
of, mostly pop, mostly--though not exclusively--black, music. Technology
has become intrinsic to rap's creation, not just a means of preserving
and distributing the music.
Ironically, this most technological of musics is also relentlessly rhythmic.
The rapper weaves his, or in some cases her, words over the hi-tech background
which is not only highly rhythmic but, at times, is even anti-melodic and
anti-harmonic because the combined fragments are not in the same key. The
resulting tonal clash works against even the fragmented melodies and harmonies
to emphasize the rhythm. No other form of black American music is so insistently
rhythmic as rap. Jazz rhythm may be more complex and sophisticated, but
jazz also has considerable melodic and harmonic play. Rap has little beyond
the rhythm--and the words. If, in the contemporary symbolic universe, the
computer stands for disembodied mind, then rap rhythm violently links that
mind to back the rhythmic body.
Such a move has deep roots in African-American culture. For example, after
the Titanic sank, blacks began reciting a poem about that sinking in which
a black boilerman, Shine, escapes despite attempts to keep him on board
by offering him money and the sexual favors of a white woman, the captain's
daughter (Jackson, 1974). In the popular mind, the Titanic was a symbol
of technology triumphant; it was supposed to be unsinkable. Shine triumphed
over that hubris and, in rejecting sex, countered white notions of black
sexuality (cf. Jackson, p. 36). Charles Keil (1966, p. 175-176) discusses
this "nonmachine tradition" in his analysis of the concept of
soul, a tradition which led many jazz musicians to form an ideological
resistance to the electrical instrumentation of rock and roll. It is almost
as though the rhythmic insistence were necessary to reclaim rap from the
dangers of its intrinsic technological commitment.
Then, we have the words; among other things, they boast, and they finger
the whiteman as a source of evil. Rap has more words than any other form
of American music, except, perhaps, for the talking blues. Those words
are manipulated as much for rhythmic effect as for what they say. Those
words have, more than anything else, brought African-American verbal virtuosity
(see Abrahams, 1970, Jackson, 1974) to mass public awareness--note that
the Titanic poem mentioned above is in this tradition and is thus a precursor
to rap. Between the words and the rhythm, rap is the most relentlessly
and consciously Black, as in Not-White, form African America has produced.
It is also the angriest. We have noted that avant-garde jazz musicians
and heavy metal rockers created music steeped in anger. Avant-garde jazz
has never had a large audience, while the heavy-metal audience is almost
exclusively white, as are its musicians. Rap is the first mass-audience
black form based on anger, giving it an ambivalent relationship to heavy-metal
rock, one of its sources of musical samples (Costello and Wallace, 67-68,
George, 1992, p. 130). It is not clear what to make of this fact.
The mainstream media has, of course, focused on this anger as expressed
in the genre of "gangsta" rap, objecting that it is sexist, racist,
and excessively violent. Once again, as in the case of jazz and rock in
prior generations, the nation's moral health is said to be imperiled, in
this case by the misogyny, anti-white attitudes, and all-around violence
of the gangstas. Whatever merits this line of criticism has, we should
note that the misogyny was not invented by the gangstas. It is widespread
in American society, certainly in those conservative circles most offended
by rap (hooks, 1994, p. 116). Further, such criticism is focused too exclusively
on only one segment of the hip-hop market and is oblivious to the fact
there are oppositional forces within the hip-hop world. Thus, for example,
female rappers will put out music explicitly criticizing and challenging
sexist lyrics (Rose, 1994, pp. 146-182). The anti-white attitudes are no
more defensible than is white racism, but one has a sense that much of
the criticism and dismay has as much to do with an ethnocentric inability
to understand how black people could possibly resent white society as with
any consistent moral reasoning. Beyond this we can note that the general
anger has been with us all along. Expressing it is, no doubt, a positive
step. But, to the extent that that anger is motivated by a desire for an
expressive culture which is Black beyond any possibility of White co-optation,
that anger runs up against the relentless social psychodynamics of racism.
For, as relentlessly black as rap has been, since the mid-eighties its
largest audience has been white, and male (Samuels, 1991, cf. Harrington,
1992, pp. 376-382). One is reminded of Gerald Early's (1989, p. 138) remark
about a passage from Norman Mailer's account of the Ali-Forman bout in
Zaire where Mailer "expresses a very simple and very old idea here,
namely, that the black male is metaphorically the white male's unconsciousness
personified." The hidden psycho-social logic of racism has operated
so that the anger black rappers express on their own behalf, and against
whites, matches the anger white males feel--perhaps about themselves, or
their elders, or both-- but are not so willing to express. The anger which
drove the rapper to create something which is, among other things, ethnically
his, allows whites to feel their own anger though the rappers' performance
while getting the vicarious thrill of an imaginary trip to the archetypal
exotic Black Jungle Ghetto much as, half a century ago, their grandparents
went to the Cotton Club to view erotic stage shows danced to hot jazz.
Yet, rap has not so far spawned a significant group of white rappers. Whites
do perform it, but the majority of the performers, for both the white and
black audience, remain black. Thus rap is not following the pattern set,
first in the swing era, then rock an roll, when the large white audience
was served by white performers who imitated black models.
This suggests that the psycho-cultural dynamic of musical expression is
undergoing a fundamental change. If, following Baraka, we think of the
blues as an "expressive contract" between free blacks and white
American society, then hip hop may represent a new aesthetic contract.
The old contract was in force up until the Reagan presidential administration
in the 1980s. This contract was based on a fundamental hope for the future
and a belief in the possibility of social justice. All of the secular music
of African-America was produced under the terms of this contract, as were
the white imitations and reconstructions of black music. One aspect of
this contract was that there would be little criticism or even mention
of white racism in song lyrics. But, as hope began to falter in the 1980s,
a new expressive contract became necessary. Hip hop has emerged as the
vehicle of that contract and pointed commentary on white racism is now
an explicit part of America's expressive culture at the broadest level.
Meanwhile, the European-American division of the culture produced an art
music which both had a large following and was not oriented toward
nineteenth century classical music. Called minimal, presumably because
it had little or no harmonic movement, the music of musicians such as Philip
Glass, Terry Riley, and Steve Reich was strongly influenced by various
non-Western musics, including, jazz, Indian, West African, and Balinese
gamelan (Rockwell, 1983, pp. 109-122, Glass, 1987, Page, 1992, pp. 66-83,
118-121). With its roots in the sixties, this music emerged to full public
view in the eighties. While other music in the European tradition had taken
elements from African-American, and other non-Western musics, and put them
to classical use, this assimilation had never been very deep. At its core,
such music remained European in outlook. The minimalists absorbed non-Western
lessons so deeply into their music that it must be considered a new departure
from its founding expressive tradition just as hip hop is a departure from
its founding tradition. Where classical music had a narrative intent Philip
Glass talks of the fundamentally meditative nature of his music. It achieves
this aim through cyclic repetition of melodic fragments (cf. Sprenkle,
1986). Though this repetition the minimalists are restoring rhythmic complexity
to the European tradition, thereby moving that tradition beyond the bounds
of Western culture.
Thus, at the beginning of the nineties the North American crossing of Africa
and Europe leaves us, on the one hand, with rap, which is a rhythmically
intense point of departure from/within its African-American tradition of
basic expression, and, on the other hand, with minimalism, a rhythmically
intense point of departure from/within its European-American tradition
of art music. There are hints that the classical world is loosening up;
Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg has recently observed that "The rules are
less strict now, so we can appreciate the music more" (Roca, 1992,
p. 6). Meanwhile, serious young men in Armani suits have been leading a
strong jazz classicist movement based on styles from swing through bop
to sixties modal jazz and the jazz avant-garde has been raiding popular
dance forms for rhythmic foundations on which to improvise spiky towers
of sound. Aging rockers from the sixties continue to record and to tour
while rock critics have been writing obituaries for a decade. Clearly,
it is time for another spin of the evolutionary dice and Africa and Europe
prepare to cross into the next millennium.
4.5 The Pattern So Far: "Freedom Over Me"
The critical question is, of course: is this process moving in some
direction or is it just drifting in cultural space? One aspect of this
question concerns the evolution of musical culture; the other aspect is
whether or not there has been any change in the underlying psycho-social
dynamic. Is the psychological pressure of racism easing up? And, if so,
can we reasonably attribute some of that change to the social dynamics
of expressive culture?
In the first phase of this musical evolution, jazz and swing, white America
simply picked up on the music black America created and proceeded to develop
its own version. At its best the white version has had lasting value; but,
on the whole, it is in the black music that we find the most compelling
players and performances. In the second phase, rock and roll, white America
again picked up on black music, this time rhythm and blues. Rock and roll
precipitated a generational split and, developing more richly than white
swing had done, became the central expressive medium for a generation of
social, political, and cultural protest and experimentation. Black music
provided a catalytic vehicle for a generation of white Americans, moving
them away from the Europe-dominated mainstream; it provided for occasions
of muscular bonding, to recall William McNeill's (1995) phrase, which could
solidify social networks among those seeking alternatives to middle-class
Beyond the music, the black protest of the civil rights movement provided
an immediate precedent, example, and training ground for white anti-war
protest; it was a source of social legitimacy and tactical example. I want
to go out on still another speculative limb and argue that the civil rights
movement owes a debt to jazz. I suggest that the political protests of
the fifties and sixties are, in part, an indirect effect of the first phase,
the jazz phase, of this overall expressive evolution; the musical expression
of the 20s, 30s, and 40s had effects in society which help enable the political
expression of the 50s and 60s. Bop is important here, for with the creation
of bop, African America created a rich and powerful art music, one which
operated on very different principles from European classical music. That
cultural achievement catalyzed a self-assurance without which the civil
rights movement would have been difficult, if not impossible.
Organized political protest cannot be fueled by anger and outrage alone;
it requires communal cohesion guided by a sense of dignity and of real
possibility. The achievements of bop musicians contributed to that sense
and that possibility (cf. Kofsky, 1970, Hobsbawm, 1993, pp. 229-247). To
be sure, the civil rights movement got much of its leadership from the
church, which is so central to African-American society (Lincoln and Mamiya,
1990)--a centrality which is being viciously high-lighted by the racist
burnings of black churches which have been occurring as I prepare this
essay in the summer of 1996. But, as we saw above, the link between secular
black music and the church is a close and intimate one, albeit often strained.
Whatever the direct contribution of bop, and later, jazz musicians to the
civil rights movement, the indirect effect--working through those who heard
the music, and even those who only talked to those who heard the music--was
surely significant. As Frank Kofsky (Kofsky, 1970, pp. 56 ff.) pointed
out, when Charlie Parker played "Now's the Time" he was talking
politics. How many of those who sang "We Shall Overcome" got
to that point by listening to Parker tell them the time was ripe?
Then we need to consider the white counter-culture of the sixties. Its
music, rock and roll, was directly influenced by rhythm and blues, which
in turn evolved from earlier swing and blues. But the possibility of going
beyond mere adolescent friskiness required the political climate of the
civil rights movement, itself indebted to the spirit of jazz self-assertion.
Thus black expressive energy influenced the counter culture both directly
through rhythm and blues and indirectly through the civil rights movement.
With the emergence of hip hop the cultural dance takes a new turn. The
black music which rock and roll took as its starting point followed naturally
from the music which proceeded it. But rap represents a new point of African-American
departure. Its anger is of its own time, but its expressive confidence,
its willingness to break with the past, is a legacy of bop's assuredness
and power. Similarly, bop is behind the minimalist wing of classical composition,
providing paradigm and inspiration as an art music based on principles
radically different from European art music. Rap anger and minimalist meditation
inform the furthest extensions of the stylistic interaction between Africa
and Europe. Only time will tell whether these are the catalytic engines
of new cultural forms steaming across a new savanna of human possibility.
Beyond the music, what has been so far achieved? Is there any evidence
that European America is being cured of its psychosocial ills? Racism is
still strong, and the projective psychodynamic which drives it still functions.
However, that dynamic may be weakening; at least some whites have learned
their lessons well and racist attitudes seem to be on the wane (Sniderman
and Piazza, p. 1993). There is reason to believe that the sexual revolution
has not been mere hype (Efron, 1985, pp. 7 ff.). For example, unmarried
couples can now cohabitate openly and freely, something unthinkable in
the Father Knows Best era and before. Attitudes have changed as
well. In an interview with Peter Whitmer (1987, p. 127), the avant-garde
novelist William S. Burroughs remarked:
[Skeptics about the 60s] don't seem to realize that forty years ago,
four-letter words did not appear on printed pages; that when I was in my
twenties and thirties [he was born in 1914], the idea that a Mexican or
a black or a queer was anything but a second-class citizen was simply absurd.
These were tremendous changes. Then, of course, the end of censorship.
Certainly there is much more writing and talk about sexuality. Much
of it is superficial, such as that on television talk shows. But the talk
exists, and that in itself is progress. In particular there is a great
deal of talk about the ugly consequences of misguided sexuality--e.g. child
abuse. Such talk, which deeply questions the integrity of family dynamics,
would have been impossible fifty or a hundred years ago. Before we can
change our behavior and our hearts, we must be able to talk, from the heart,
about that behavior. These changes in behavior and attitude have such strenuous
opposition that we cannot confidently predict the future. Yet, if the talk
continues, behavior may continue changing as well and the inheritors of
the Western cultural legacy may create a more emotionally satisfying culture,
one which need no longer need to use racism as a way of dealing with emotional
We need also to consider the revised appearance of African Americans on
television and in the movies (Gates, 1989, Harrington, 1992, pp. 353-376).
The 1977 miniseries Roots, based on Alex Haley's book, became the
most highly rated program in network history. Blacks are no longer confined
to subservient, marginal and low life roles--maids, butlers, hookers, and
hustlers--a circumstance indicating greater white willingness to see blacks
as people, not merely as projective screens. Denzel Washington's portrayal
of Don Pedro in Kenneth Branagh's 1993 film of Shakespeare's Much Ado
About Nothing is a particularly striking example of color-blind casting.
Bill Cosby took a black brush to the American Dream and created the most
popular television show of the eighties . Spike Lee catalyzed a sepia
revolution in cinema, creating mythically compelling depictions of black
street-life and rage (Do the Right Thing ), the incendiary subject
of inter-racial sex (Jungle Fever ) and the polymorphic life of
Malcolm X. Fears that Do the Right Thing would provoke riots
(George, 1992, p. 35, Lee, 1991, p. 15) proved to be white projective paranoia,
and, while some films did provoke largely black-on-black violence (George,
1992, pp. 152-156), that was different in kind and considerably less lethal
than the rise in lynchings following the 1915 release of the thoroughly
racist Birth of a Nation (Du Bois, 1940, pp. 729-730). African-American
expressive genius is thus moving into a visual arena where one cannot pretend
the blackness away--as one might pretend it away while listing to a record
or the radio (for a chronology of expressive progress since 1971, see George,
1992, pp. 9-40).
To be sure, this cultural progress tragically parallels social conditions
which, for many African Americans, are worse than they were twenty or thirty
years ago (Hacker, 1992; Kondracke, 1989; Vann Woodward, 1989). But we
should not allow the one face of this disparity to blind us to the other.
The cultural progress is real, and so is the social regress. History works
in mysterious ways and, if we are to influence its path into the future,
we must take full note of its complexity, contradiction, and paradox .
5. Conclusion: Stepping Out on a New Savanna
Let's work our way to the end of this essay by considering a passage
from Charles Keil's classic study of Urban Blues (1966, p. 197):
Freedom cannot be given, dignity cannot be granted; but a deeper understanding
of another way of life--perhaps even a profound respect for cultural differences--is
possible. In the world of today and tomorrow it is necessary for survival.
No nation on earth has yet achieved a lasting and productive cultural pluralism
. . . The problem of the Negro in America is inextricably meshed with the
problem of America in the world; and, as many confused prophets before
me have noted, anything can happen, ranging from catastrophe to a golden
That is the issue before us. The United States is a single highly diverse
society, but it is culturally plural. At the heart of that society is a
psycho-cultural engine which has crossed expressive practices of European
and African ancestry. That same engine has killed many many people through
direct and indirect racist violence. The question is whether or not the
positive effects of the emerging expressive culture will be able to keep
ahead and even gain on the effects of destructive violence. I know of no
way to reason toward a strong conclusion on this issue. We simply do not
have intellectual tools suitable to this task.
The full assimilation of African Americans to European-American culture
is not a viable option. As long as emotional repression remains the norm
in European-American culture, some means are needed to relieve that emotional
strain. For too many whites, racist scapegoating remains an important source
of strain relief. These people can't permit assimilation as it would threaten
their emotional stability. On the other hand, African-American culture
has positive features absent in European-American culture. Those who value
this culture can't assimilate without destroying that expressive virtuosity
and the social practices and values which nurture and support it.
The grimmest possibility is that this social engine will simply collapse
and the United States will destroy itself in an orgy of "ethnic cleansing."
Less grim, but by no means acceptable, is that the system will achieve
some steady state in which expressive genres come and go, but the underlying
psycho-cultural engine remains intact--I am reminded here of the centuries
during which the Chinese dissipated psychological energy through binding
the feet of their girls and women, a practice which may have killed ten
percent of its victims (Fairbank, 1992). The only acceptable possibility
is that a new social order will evolve in which expressive practices allow
people to mature without such a heavy burden of emotional repression. In
such a society assimilation would not be an issue.
The point of this essay is that fragments of such a society have already
been evolving through the interaction between African and European America.
That evolution certainly has further to go and success is not certain.
The possibility of success will surely increase if we become more aware
of the psychological and social mechanisms driving this evolution. European
America can afford that awareness only by acknowledging that Western culture
is not eternal. The Western way has never been the only route to truth,
love, beauty, and justice. And surely the political, scientific, and aesthetic
ideals of the Western legacy will flourish more fully in a society freed
of emotional repression and its correlative racism. Similarly, African
America needs assurance that history is not a grand white conspiracy against
peoples of color. Only with freedom and dignity thus assured can it grow
beyond the mentality of victimization to assume the leadership responsibilities
which the twenty-first century offers.
The West, as a particular set of cultural practices, ideas, and attitudes,
is temporally bounded; it had a beginning and it must have an end as well
(cf. West, 1993a, pp. 124-136; 1993b, pp. 116 ff.; 1993c, pp. 5 ff.). While
it is common to place ancient Greece, Rome, and Israel within the bounds
of Western culture, that intellectual reflex is anachronistic. That the
West owes much to those cultures is certain, just as it is certain the
West owes much to the mathematicians and natural philosophers of the Near
and Far East. But were any Westerner to journey back to any of those cultures,
she would surely find it exotic and alien. For example, the Greece we identify
with elegant white temples is a dead Greece. In the days when those temples
hosted the ceremonies and celebrants of a living religion they were painted
in strong contrasting colors (Gombrich, 1951, p. 63). The contrast between
pure white, on the one hand, and on the other, vivid blues and reds and
yellows, is surely both a metaphor and a metonymy for the difference between
ancient Greece considered as a Western nation and Greece as it actually
was lived. Western culture originated in the cross-cultural flux of people,
ideas, and attitudes in and between Europe and the Near East from the twelfth
century through the European Renaissance. But the emergence of Western
culture was not a priori inevitable and we should not pretend that
it was by so casually assuming that Greece, Rome, and Israel were Western
nations. Some of their culture traits survived in the West, and many did
The Renaissance fixes the boundary at the beginning of Western culture,
with its emotional repression and its correspondingly ambivalent interaction
with Africa. What begins in time must also end in time. Western culture
began to disperse at the turn of this century while simultaneously African
America began driving the 20th Century Blues Unlimited into the forefront
of cultural evolution.
While we continue to refer to modern physics, astronomy, chemistry, and
biology as sciences, those disciplines have a theoretical and experimental
style which differs as much from seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth
century practice as that classical style differed from the natural philosophy
which preceded it (Benzon and Hays, 1990b). Science continues, but the
most advanced theorizing and experimentation is more sophisticated in kind
and deserves a different name--one, I might add, more felicitous than a
prefixed mongrel like "post-science." Similarly, the expressive
regime of Western capital "A" Art--classical music, realistic
painting and sculpture, the novel, and so forth--began to collapse at the
turn of the century (Hays, 1992, Benzon, 1993a, Benzon, 1993b) with the
most adventuresome workers seeking new forms. Political and economic institutions
continue, but they are under great stress.
Even as the West is dying, post-Western culture is emerging and we are
living, some even thriving, in it. Post-scientific thought, in physics,
astronomy, chemistry, and biology, not to mention computing and other fields,
is, by definition, post-Western. To think of it any other way is to misunderstand
the course and nature of cultural evolution. With musicians--and athletes,
dancers and preachers as well--as its unacknowledged legislators, the African-American
blues train and its various crosses, with European America, Europe itself,
Asia and Latin America, and Africa itself, is of an era following Western
domination of world history. These emerging cultures have strong African
roots, but they are no more African than Western culture has been Greek,
Roman, or Hebrew. They also have strong European roots. They are hybrids.
Neither African nor European, they are emerging to sing and dance the united
states of the blues on the new savanna of the 21st century.
1. This essay is a revision of "The United States of the Blues:
On the Crossing of African and European Cultures in the 20th Century,"
Journal of Social and Evolutionary Systems 16 (4) : 401-438, 1993.
One of the difficulties of writing this piece is that I have had to refer
to African and European Americans as though they were and are clearly distinct
and more or less internally homogeneous groups. In fact, of course, the
boundaries are not clear and there are significant regional, class and
ethnic differences within these two broad groups. Still, so much about
American society and culture has depended on the destructive fiction that
black is black and white is white that I have reasonable confidence that
the my argument can serve as a useful reference point for studies which
incorporate a realistic demographic diversity. I should also note that
I do not assume that all white folks are racist, or that black folks automatically
acquire some mysterious moral virtue because they have been racially oppressed. [Back]
2. For an enumeration of the various genres of African-American music,
see Berendt (1975, p. 5), Keil (1966, pp. 217-224), Maultsby (1990, p.
186). For more recent genres, you can consult George (1988, 1992). [Back]
3. It is worth noting that Beethoven notated these rhythms using time signatures
he did not use in any other of his some thirty-odd piano sonatas, a fact
which underlines how exceptional these rhythms are in classical music.
The Arietta consists of a theme, five variations, and a coda. The theme
and first variation are written in 9/16 time; the second variation is in
6/16, the third in 12/32, and the remaining variations and coda are in
9/16. The second and especially the third variations are the jazziest. [Back]
4. Harold Schonberg (1967, p. 357) notes that Bernstein's podium choreography
was a source of contention. In an interview with Tim Page (1992, pp. 124-125),
Ms. Salerno-Sonnenberg expressed irritation at "the implication that
I sat around with my publicity agent and decided to play the way I do to
attract attention. Do they think this is a joke? . . . And I've
tried to play the violin without any facial expressions. I did a whole
concert last year . . . and I spent the whole time concentrating on keeping
my face straight. And I heard a tape of the concert afterwards, and it
sounded as if I'd gone to sleep."
Expressive body movement is intrinsic to African musical performance (Blacking,
1974, pp. 109-111, Wilson, 1990, p. 29) and certainly remains in African-American
performance. Given that Bernstein liked both jazz and rock, and that Salerno-Sonnenberg
went to a Philadelphia school where she was one of only two white girls
(Epstein, 1987, p. 85), is it possible that these classical performers
have assimilated a measure of African style? [Back]
5. The literature on jazz has many comparisons between jazz and classical
music--and other musics as well. But I don't know that a full comparison
has been assembled in one place. Schuller (1968, pp. 6-66) and Dankworth
(1968, 3-45) provide useful summaries of jazz practice with respect to
rhythm, melody, harmony, timbre, form, and improvisation; those are the
things which need to be compared with classical practice. Andre Hodier's
(1956, pp. 139-157) discussion of "Melody in Jazz" is the best
place to start making the comparison explicit; other chapters in the same
book are useful as well (chapters 3, 10, 12, and 14). Paul Berliner's (1995)
Thinking in Jazz is the best account of jazz improvisation by far.
Erich Neumann's (1986) study of improvisation in Mozart is a useful point
of entry to the study of classical improvisational practice. My essay on
"Stages in the Evolution of Music" (1993) sketches a general
comparative framework for understanding levels of musical sophistication
and situates both jazz and classical music in it. [Back]
6. I'm in no position to offer an explicit account of how bop jazz and
classical music achieve epiphanies. But I am willing to offer some speculation
which gets part of the way there. My speculation begins with the common
observation that music is much like mathematics; you take a small number
of well chosen rules and procedures and use them to create elaborate and
sophisticated structures. These rules and procedures belong to what David
Hays has called gnomonic structure (1992, p. 199; cf. Benzon and Hays,
1988, pp. 308-312, Benzon, 1981, pp. 252-256). The gnomonic rules are not
linked to time and space. When enacted, however, those rules can generate
complex structures of episodes, and the episodes do unfold in time. The
note by note sequence of a performance is enacted by episodic structures.
To understand a performance in its totality you need mentally to recreate
the particular gnomonic rules and procedures which generated that performance
(cf. Hays, 1992, Benzon, 1993b). To understand what is going on note by
note, moment by moment, you need to empathetically enact the episodic process
which generates the notes. If the performance was improvised, then you
need to recreate the improviser's procedures. If the performance was based
on a composed text, then you need to recreate the composer's procedures.
It is my impression--I have no explicit quantitative evidence--that, minute
by minute, bop improvisation (and later) tends to be denser in texture,
less redundant, than most classical music. The rhythm is very active and
has a more deeply branching phrase structure, to borrow a concept from
linguistics, than a classical line of similar duration. The melodic lines
tend to be angular and irregular, and the interaction between the soloist
and the accompaniment is very rich. Classical compositions may often have
a greater number of distinctly different voices playing at a time, but,
in the small scale, the individual lines and their interaction tend to
be more regular and predictable than jazz improvisations. The upshot of
this--and here the speculation quotient is even higher--is that a seven-minute
bop performance may well make information processing demands comparable
to those of a somewhat longer classical composition.
We have experimental evidence that our sense of temporal duration depends,
not on what happens during a given interval, but on how much storage space
we devote to the memory of what happened in that interval (Ornstein, 1969).
In particular our sense of duration for an interval can decrease if, after
that interval, we learn a more efficient way to encode that experience
Let's return to the listener trying to understand a musical performance.
The listener is listening to the unfolding structure of musical episodes
and trying to infer the gnomonic rules on which the music is based. That
inference cannot be complete until the last note. At that time the listener
can "erase" all that he or she remembers of the elaborate episodic
structure and replace it with the considerably more compact gnomonic structure.
A considerable temporal duration has must been collapsed into a small one;
in effect, the experience has been outside time. Improvisation and composition
are two ways of achieving this.
Even granting provisional validity to this speculation, this temporal collapse
does not quite add up to reorganizational epiphany. Even more speculation
is required--though experimentally verified fact would be better. The overall
point of this argument is simply to suggest a way we can begin to understand
that composition and improvisation are different means to the similar expressive
7. Leonard Bernstein talked of completely forgetting "who you are
or where you are and you write the piece right there . You just
make it up as though you never heard it before . . . I always know when
such a thing has happened because it takes so long to come back. It takes
four or five minutes to know what city I'm in, who the orchestra is, who
are the people making all that noise behind me, who am I? It's a
very great experience and it doesn't happen often enough" (Epstein,
1987, p. 52). Karen Chester (personal communication), who currently produces
Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg's recordings tells me that Salerno-Sonnenberg
sometimes gets similarly lost in her playing. The jazz musician Ira Sullivan
said "I feel that I'm at my best when I can free myself completely
from the effort of trying to put something out and feel more like I am
the instrument being played--like opening the channel to God, or whatever
it is. I suddenly get the feeling that I'm standing next to myself, but
I'm not thinking that this is me playing" (Spitzer, 1972, p. 14).
Jenny Boyd (1972, pp. 157-186) has collected a number of anecdotes, mostly
from rock musicians, and Mickey Hart (1990) tells anecdotes about drumming
and ecstasy. My own experience indicates that these various anecdotes,
however interesting, lack descriptive nuance. These experiences are difficult
to talk about, but we can do better. A systematic set of interviews with
a variety of musicians--different styles and levels of accomplishment--and
with attention to detail would be very illuminating. [Back]
8. I have some direct experience on the relationship between high-tech
improvisatory management style and rock and roll. In the early 90s I spent
two years writing technical documentation for MapInfo, Corp., which makes
software for analytic mapping. Sean O'Sullivan, one of the young founders
and formerly chairman of the board, would end many of his electronic mail
communications with an exhortation to "rock and roll." Half a
year after I left, he resigned to pursue a career in rock and roll. To
accommodate to its rapid growth MapInfo revised its management structure
at least two times in the two years I was employed there. Change was explicitly
recognized as being essential to survival. [Back]
9. When I originally wrote this section I had imagined, for example, that
there was an "improvisational" philosophy still to be created,
one which might well avoid the problems faced by current philosophy. Since
then I have been reading Cornel West's (1989) history of pragmatism and
suspect that pragmatism might well be that philosophy, or at least it may
be the beginnings of that philosophy. If so, that suggests an interesting
visual metaphor for the symbolic stratum of American culture. Imagine a
double-helix--the structural form of DNA--in which one strand is jazz and
the other pragmatism. Just what are the links connecting the two strands? [Back]
10. Such a social mechanism hasn't existed in all societies where whites
have dominated blacks. European culture has mixed with African culture
elsewhere, particularly the Caribbean and Latin America, but not so fruitfully;
this difference requires an explanation. The music of the Caribbean and
South America has been strongly influenced by African rhythm; in fact,
African rhythms survive there in purer form than they have in North America,
presumably because the drum wasn't banished there as it was in North America.
But Latin American has not produced a musical culture as fecund and sophisticated
as jazz (Murray, 1976, p. 63; Crouch, 1990b, p. 79). Significantly, Latin
America has not been as intensely racist as the United States (Fredrickson,1988,
pp. 189-205). Without intense racism, the socio-cultural mechanism I describe
Fredrickson has attributed this difference between British North America
and South America to the fact that, unlike Britain, Spain and Portugal
were essentially feudal societies--in terms of the theory of cultural ranks
(Benzon and Hays, 1990) Britain was an emerging Rank 3 culture while Spain
and Portugal were still Rank 2. In his view, the feudal mentality could
easily accommodate a wide range of social statuses, with slaves merely
being at the bottom. The British, however, were moving toward a capitalist
system in which there was a wide gulf between the industrious and "worthy"
middle class, and a "worthless" lower class. Belief in a radical
difference between black slaves and whites gave lower-class whites a scapegoat
for the feelings of inferiority produced by this work ethic while, at the
same time, the egalitarian milieu of North America forced the Southern
aristocracy and white middle and lower class to seek solidarity in their
mutual difference from black slaves (cf. remarks by Kenneth Clark in Terkel,
1992, pp. 334-338). [Back]
11. I am certainly in no position to explain why Du Bois did not elaborate
on the connections he saw between psychoanalytic theory and racism; however,
since I fear that many other intellectuals have similar misgivings, I want
to think about the matter. A recent remark by Charles Keil may provide
a clue. The remark is a brief note which Keil originally wrote to Steven
Feld in response to a long letter in which Feld discussed issues of sexuality,
personal tragedy, and racism which occurred to him while thinking about
the music of Aretha Franklin. Keil says to Feld, "I really
appreciate the candor, the courage to jump into the song and sexuality
issues that I've been afraid to write about too!...Maybe we should get
together a group and try to think-talk our way through issues that are
too weird and threatening to handle in scholarly or meditative isolation"
(published in Keil and Feld, 1994, p. 223). Keil simply found these issues
too anxiety-provoking to write about; perhaps Du Bois felt the same way.
One cannot do effective intellectual work in a state of continuous and
strong emotional arousal or anxiety. Where the subject matter provokes
a strong emotional reaction, you must develop conceptual strategies which
allow you to keep in touch with the subject matter while providing the
detachment necessary for thought. It is a difficult balancing act.
However much the link between sexuality and racism has been neglected by
intellectuals, it has been intensely studied by writers in such works as
Richard Wright's Native Son , William Faulkner's A Light in August
, Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man , Ishmael Reed's Flight to Canada
, E.M. Forster's A Passage to India , and Jean Genet's play
The Screens. [Back]
12. It would be a mistake, however, simply to view racism as individual
psychopathology. As Elisabeth Young-Bruehl has observed (1996, p. 32),
"many people have prejudices instead of the conventional forms
of various pathologies, somewhat as people have perversions instead of
neuroses if they act on their forbidden desires rather than repressing
them." Psychopathology generally makes it more difficult for people
to interact with others in ways which meet their needs. This is not generally
the case with racists. On the contrary, their racist actions make it easier
for them to interact with individuals in their own group , other
racists, by displacing or projecting conflicts onto the objects of their
racism. Racism is a social mechanism which allows individuals to deal with
psychological conflicts in ways which do not threaten the group. [Back]
13. Lynchings were sporadic eruptions. While there were 156 lynchings in
the peak year of 1892 (Williamson, p. 117), these were dispersed over a
wide geographic area; lynchings would be relatively infrequent in each
local community. Thus they are fine for an occasional quick and intense
communal release; but lynchings would not alone be able to vent the pressure
of continuous emotional repression. The institution of patrol, which began
in the seventeenth century and continued into the nineteenth, is a different
matter. It involved continual policing of blacks by white men (Williamson,
pp. 18-19). By the nineteenth century many able-bodied Southern white men
were obligated to spend some of their time, week by week, patrolling the
streets and roads at night to see that blacks were in their proper place.
Patrols had the power to judge and punish infractions. Such continued vigilance
would provide a continuously available way of working off repressed impulses. [Back]
14. In her biography of Josephine Baker, Phyllis Rose contrasts European
exoticism with American racism (1989: 44): "Exoticism is frivolous,
hangs out at nightclubs, will pay anything to have the black singer or
pianist sit at its table. Racism is like a poor kid who grew up needing
someone to hurt. . . . The racist is hedged around by dangers, the exoticism
by used-up toys." What she means by exoticism is thus similar to what
I mean in talking about the Cotton Club as a scene of racism. Whatever
qualms I have about her term--I think talking about "exoticism"
makes it a little too easy to lose sight of the fact that it is a form
of racism, depending on the underlying psychodynamics of racism--her general
discussion is an excellent one. [Back]
15. I offer the segregated nightclub and the lynching mostly as metaphors,
each indicating a particular pattern of racist socio-cultural action. I
find them to be useful conceptual tools, ways of summarizing two different
complexes of attitudes and mechanisms, each conditioned by racism. But
what is the underlying difference between these two scenarios, what is
it that causes them to be different? One possibility is that the nightclub
and the lynching are structured by two different kinds of racism. As the
lynchings were mostly in the South while the nightclubs were in the urban
North, perhaps Joel Kovel's (1984) distinction between (Southern) dominative
and (Northern) aversive racism applies. We might also want to think about
Elisabeth Young-Bruehl's (1996) distinction between ethnocentric prejudice
(the nightclub?) and an ideology of desire (the lynching?). [Back]
16. Krin Gabbard (1995) has an essay on Spike Lee's Mo' Better Blues
which is worth reading in this context. He points out that, in general,
trumpet players in jazz movies generally have their musical wings clipped,
as it were, before they end the movie easing into domestic bliss. [Back]
17. The publication of Herskovitz's book did not, however, end the idea
that whatever culture African Americans had was, on the one hand, a response
to poverty and oppression, and, on the other, taken over from white America.
When Nathan Glazer and Patrick Moynihan published their classic Beyond
the Melting Pot: The Negroes, Puerto Ricans, Jews, Italians, and Irish
of New York City (1963), they credited the Jews with Broadway (p. 174)
and the Puerto Ricans with Pablo Casals and "a passion for music and
dancing" (pp. 129-130). That New York City was also the jazz capital
of the world was never mentioned. When Charles Silberman published his
1964 Crisis in Black and White he was able to state definitively
that "the Negro has been completely stripped of his past and severed
from any culture save that of the United States" (p. 109, cf. pp.
167, 185). For recent review of some of the debate about African origins,
see Holloway (1990, pp. ix-xiii) and Philips (1990, pp. 225-228). [Back]
18. While New Orleans is certainly the geographical focal point for the
cultural mixing which produced jazz (Blassingame, 1979, pp. 36 ff.; Buerkle
and Barker, 1973; Chase, 1966, pp. 301-314; Collier, 1978; Hobsbawm, 1993,
Ventura, 1987a, pp. 36-42), it is certainly not the only city where blacks
created a distinctively African-American music. Ross Russell (1971) makes
a strong case for the independent creativity of Kansas City while Scott
Brown's (1986) biography of James P. Johnson chronicles the role of New
York City as an incubator of black piano virtuosity. [Back]
19. Of course, this secularization of church music and its use for social
dancing is not universally accepted. As Albert Murray (1976, p. 139) has
observed, many "condemn all the good-time slow dragging, belly rubbing,
hip grinding, flirtatious strutting, shouting, and stomping expressly because
they regard such movements as not only sinful acts, but sinful ceremony
to boot, which they seem to be clearly convinced is even worse." [Back]
20. While I understand how black people can feel that white people have
stolen their music, this issue requires a bit of analysis. Cultural practices
are not like bars of gold that can have only one owner. If you steal my
golden eggs, then I no longer have them; I have lost something. If you
play my music, you haven't taken anything from me; I can still play my
music. When whites play black music they are not thereby depriving blacks
of that music. In this context, the only sensible attitude is that the
achievements of any culture constitute the common heritage of the human
race. One need not be an Englishman to benefit from Newton's physics, a
Moslem to benefit from al-Khowarizm's mathematics, nor black to benefit
from Louis Armstrong's music.
However, when whites claim to have invented jazz (cf. Collier, 1978, pp.
124 ff.; Peretti, 1992, pp. 71, 187 ff.)--that is a kind of theft.
It isn't clear to me, however, that the phenomenon of second-string white
musicians achieve greater prominence than first-string blacks always represents
cultural theft. The white musicians get the prominence because the more
numerious white audience prefers them. One can question white taste, but
that taste isn't an agent of cultural theft. However, as Paul Levinson
has pointed out to me, in the 1950s a number of radio stations refused
to play black "race" music, prompting record companies to issue
white "covers" of the black records. That appears to be a kind
This leads to a broader economic issue, one which, it seems to me, is deeper
than the income disparity between prominent second-string white performers
and less prominent first-string blacks. Consider whatever expressive arena
you will--jazz, all of African-American music, all of African-American
entertainment, art, and sports. Add up all the money consumers spend on
tickets, cover charges, recordings, magazines, biographies, videotapes,
etc. Divide this into two piles, money spent by blacks and money spent
by whites. Now consider the money made by all involved in producing the
music, or sports, whatever--fees and salaries for performers and managers,
salaries for those in the media, and so forth. This sum should equal that
which consumers put in to the business. Divide this amount into two piles,
that made by whites and that made by blacks.
Now compare the money consumers put into the business with the money the
producers take out. If black producers take out less than black consumers
put in, then the result is a net transfer of wealth from the black community
to the white. As I don't know whether anyone has actually made such a calculation,
I can't say whether or not white society has been able to use black music,
entertainment, and sports to impoverish the black community. But, if the
calculation worked out in that way, that would surely be a most serious
kind of cultural theft. I have unhappy suspicions about how this calculation
would work out; though perhaps a decade-by-decade breakdown would show
that, as blacks have gotten more control over their business affairs, the
amount of theft has been going down. That's progress. [Back]
21. Charles Keil has recently speculated that the blues might not be as
black as we think (Keil and Feld, pp. 198-200). The earliest blues recordings,
made back in the teens, were made by whites; thus to the extent that those
early recordings played a role in spreading the blues about, it was a white
version that spread. It wasn't until about 1920 that we had extensive black
blues recordings and it wasn't until the late 1920s that a black blues
recording was a hit with blacks. If this speculation turns out to have
merit, it might force some revision of Baraka's speculations about the
origins of the blues. [Back]
22. I don't know exactly when Ellington gave this particular testimony,
but I am sure that he gave it. The September, 1989 issue of down beat
was an anniversary issue, with sections devoted to the 30s, 40s, etc. Each
section contained pieces down beat printed in that year. The section
for the thirties (p. 22) contained the story of Ellington's denial, but
gave no publication information. [Back]
23. There have been and are very fine white jazz musicians--Jack Teagarden,
Benny Goodman, Stan Getz, and Phil Woods come to mind. However, the primary
innovators, the musicians who have made the deepest contribution to the
language of jazz, have been overwhelmingly black. It is not clear why so
few whites have made it to the top ranks, but two possibilities come to
mind: 1) That no white musician can know the culture deeply enough to make
a seminal contribution. 2) That white musicians have the option of going
into classical music, an option effectively closed for blacks (cf. Harrington,
1992, pp. 228-234), and that is where the very best of them go. [Back]
24. One way to trace the links between the counter-culture of the sixties
and the computer culture would be to follow the work of Stewart Brand,
whose The Last Whole Earth Catalog published in 1971 quickly became
something of a counter-culture bible. Brand published subsequent updates
and established a quarterly magazine, The Coevolution Quarterly
, which became The Whole Earth Review . In 1984 Brand published
the Whole Earth Software Catalog , a guide to personal computing.
More recently Brand (1987) wrote a book about MIT's Media Lab. More recently,
Paul Levinson has reminded me, Brand had a role in founding Wired
, a computer culture magazine with a graphic and verbal style deeply indebted
to the sixties rock culture. Cyberpunk was defined by William Gibson's
1984 novel, Neuromancer (1984), in which video games meet reggae.
The Mississippi Review devoted a special double issue to cyberpunk
guest-edited by Larry McCaffery, Volume 16, numbers 2 and 3. For a brief
chronology see Ravo and Cash (1993). David Porush has commented on cyberpunk's
cultural and neural imperatives (1987, 1991). For a look at a journalistic
fellow-traveller, pick up an issue of Wired , or better yet, of
Mondo 2000 , which features garish art direction, guidance on "smart"
drugs (i.e. drugs which are supposed to enhance mental performance) and
digital media, and interviews. [Back]
25. This development certainly merits more attention than I am competent
to give it. But I would like to offer some praise for Bill Cosby. Cosby's
Huxtable family embodied widely shared values and aspirations which we
might as well call The American Dream--interesting and remunerative careers
for mother and father, attractive children, familial harmony, an elegant
home and nice clothes all around. Previous African-American families on
prime-time television were quite different. Fred Sanford (& Son) was
a junkman living in the ghetto. George Jefferson (& family) was very
successful, but also very insecure in the status attendant upon his material
success. His insecurity may well be closer to reality than the Huxtables'
easy self-assurance, but prime-time TV is mythology, not sociology. The
myth is that everyone has a right to what the Huxtables have. That, by
the way, these particular people are black, simply puts African-Americans
at the center of this myth.
As a statement of the situation of black America The Cosby Show
was certainly inadequate, and was criticized on that account (cf. Zoglin,
1987, p. 60, Gates, 1989, p. 40). But it is quite clear that Cosby never
intended a full sociological treatment of contemporary African America.
He was interested in mythologizing and, as mythologist, he was brilliant.
As an example, consider the scene where, in honor of the forty-ninth wedding
anniversary of Cliff's (played by Cosby) parents, the whole family performs
to a record of Ray Charles' "Night Time is the Right Time." Cliff
and his son Theo mime along with Ray's voice. Nice enough, and, from Cosby,
some brilliant comic understatement. But the real focus is on the women
and girls, who take the roles of the Raelets. All of them, from mother
Claire to young Rudy, swing their hips and sing. The song's statement is
very simple and basic: The night time, is the right time, to be with the
one you love. And the way those ladies move makes it quite clear just why
the night time is so right.
The attitude, the ethos, thus being expressed is absolutely scandalous
in the context of conventional middle-class values. That children and grandchildren
should honor their elders, yes that is fine. But such a performance is
hardly an honorable one. We should remember that, thirty years ago, when
Elvis took his swinging pelvis to the Ed Sullivan show, his motions were
censored. Now the same movements appear on a wholesome family TV show as
a gift from granddaughters to admiring and loving grandparents. Such a
thing would have been shocking on those stalwarts of fifties television,
Father Knows Best or Ozzie and Harriet .
Such stylish and easy sensuality was central to The Cosby Show .
It was most consistently present in the way Cosby moved and talked, but
the other members of the family showed it in varying degrees. It was also
present, of course, in the music, which included Stevie Wonder, Frank Foster
and the Count Basie Orchestra, Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington and John
Coltrane (Cliff and Claire end one episode slow-slow-dancing to a recording
of Ellington's "In a Sentimental Mood"), Joe Williams (jazz singer
who played Claire's father), and Art Blakey. This style is, in the cultural
psychodynamics we've been tracing, both a racist stereotype and a viable
and vibrant cultural style. As stereotype it appeared in the various low-life
characters--pimps, hookers, pushers, hustlers, thieves, and so forth--to
which African-Americans have generally been relegated in movies and TV.
Cosby's genius is to move this style into the middle-class, away from stereotypical
low-life characters. Not only is he saying "African-Americans can
be middle-class" he is also saying that "The middle-class can
be sexy." [Back]
26. While I think about musical sophistication as distinct levels of cultural
rank, a theoretical approach I have developed with David Hays (Benzon and
Hays, 1990b; Hays, 1992; Benzon, 1993b), in the interests of readers unfamiliar
with that theory, I have avoided it in the body of the essay. For those
familiar with that work, or interested in becoming familiar with it, here
is my sense of how the various musical genres mentioned in this essay fit
into that framework:
- Rank 1, Basic Expression: traditional jazz, most blues, rhythm and blues,
most rock, rap.
- Rank 2, Entertainment: swing-era jazz; fusion; some blues; the polystylistic
Ray Charles; some rock, including the Beatles starting with Sgt. Pepper's
Lonely Hearts Club Band , Bob Dylan, the Jimi Hendrix of Electric
Ladyland , Frank Zappa, the Greatful Dead, the Talking Heads; the Broadway
musical; singers such as Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Judy Garland, Barbara
- Rank 3, Art: European classical; bop, and modal jazz.
- Rank 4, Beyond art, candidates: such jazz as the Art Ensemble of Chicago
and the World Saxophone Quartet; minimalist classical.
This classification should be treated cautiously and it is certainly subject
to criticism and revision, both in the basic theory and in the application
of that theory to music. Note particularly that the common stylistic designators--jazz,
blues, pop, etc.--do not line up precisely with cultural rank.
This scheme reveals that the most active crossing from African America
European America took place at Ranks 1 and 2. It took a long time for Rank
3 European music to absorb African-American influence. When it finally
did so, the result appears to be a music (minimalism) which has a foot
in the next rank of cultural evolution. [Back]
27. Despite much vigorous criticism of Eurocentric accounts of history
and of non-European peoples the notion that there is such as thing as Western
culture has not been given much critical examination. "The West"
is one essence which seems to have escaped current critiques of essentialism.
Some preliminary steps toward such a critique can be found in James Clifford
(1988, p. 272), Eric Wolf (1982, pp. 5-7), Marshall Hodgson (1993, pp.
6 ff, 255 ff), and in Cornel West's (1993c, pp. 120-121, 125) remarks on
the concept of Europe. I have been much concerned about the biological
metaphor implicit in talking about entities such as French culture, Samoan
culture, or Western culture as though they were analogues to biological
species and have concluded that this way of thinking is nonsense (Benzon,
in press). [Back]
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This essay was written out of the conviction that the twentieth century
owes as much to Daniel Louis Armstrong--aka Satchmo, Pops--as it does to
Albert Einstein. I would like to dedicate it to Pops, to Rahsaan Roland
Kirk and John Birks Gillespie, ambassadors from the United States of the
Blues, and to Dave Dysert, who taught me jazz fundamentals. I am grateful
to Ade Knowles and Druis Beasley Knowles for over a decade of fine music
making, friendship, and conversation on these issues. Art Efron has been
an example of a thinker who has been driven to make emotionally tough arguments
out of a sense of decency and truth. Bruce Jackson taught me the importance
of African-American narrative tradition and was the first to encourage
me to put my trumpeter's mouth in my writer's fingers and say what I know
about black music and American culture. David Porush back-stopped my judgment
of Beethoven and made insightful comments about rap and technology. David
Hays, Paul Levinson, Martha Mills, and Fabrice Ziolkowski gave the manuscript
a critical reading. I remain chief repository of factual error, interpretive
misjudgment, and signifying monkey-shines.
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