Kevin Phinney (kevinphinney) Mon 10 Oct 05 10:25
Thanks for the question, Ed. Insofar as I could tell, there wasn't anything in American society during the peak years of minstrelsy (1840-90) that wasn't racially divisive. But once that's said, you have a particularly intriguing point: Yes, minstrelsy was an often cruel lowbrow attempt to belittle another race, but the one thing it did do was expose black"ness" to the rest of America. This was a time when what happened in the world of blacks was utterly mysterious to whites. Most white people only saw blacks at their labors, when blacks were not especially likely to speak, other than to say "yes" or "no," or explain why the hoeing wasn't done or how the pig slipped through the fence. Not much cultural exchange happening there. Minstrelsy wasn't an accurate portrayal, of course -- but it was exposure. And once that exposure happened, and especially after blacks began entering minstrelsy in droves at the end of the Civil War, blacks could take the structure of the mistrel show and begin to invest it with more authenticity, which did happen. Blacks corked themselves up in order to escape a life of sharecropping after the war. And, without too much subtext, the reason they corked their faces black was that it had become the tradition in minstrel shows. Blackface was one way of telegraphing to the audience what kind of show they were about to see. Unfortunately, Lisa, I came to discover Levine too late for him to be useful in the book. Time marches on, and my editor was about to throttle me for taking four months on each of the chapters. I've read Toll's "Blacking Up" cover to cover several times -- and went out of my way to find a copy I could keep, since it's long out of print -- but I must say that for all the quality writing and reportage, I cannot recall him taking much of a stand on what he chronicled. It was simple historical reporting. Now that may be only my memory, but that's what I recall. The nuts and bolts of how this book was assembled I think is far less chatworthy than the questions the book hopes to raise: Why are white people so fascinated with the notion of becoming temporarily black? Clearly in our culture, not many white people would trade places with a black person -- except for the moment. Whites still flock to what they think of as cutting edge black music, still adopt the talismans of black dress, slang, and even body language. Why? The book draws some conclusions, but I'd find it far more educational to hear from other folks who might post. Why do the Rolling Stones, a band of white fellows from suburban Britain, find this music so intoxicating? Likewise Bonnie Raitt, Eminem, and Van Morrison. In all of our minds, there's some internal meter that reads in the red when we feel someone is inauthentic (think Vanilla Ice), but what are those identifiers, and what triggers them? Conversely, how can someone like Jimi Hendrix walk into the rock world and simplyh claim it for his own? Was it because he disguised his blackness in psychedelic blackface? Instead of burnt cork it was Swinging London Mod drag and a crazy blown-out afro? And why have no black rock star of his stature emerged since? Does Prince count? These are just a few of the things that continue to nag at me when I thumb through the book anymore. Not what's there...which I'm proud of, but what's beneath the surface that I scratched on for five years running. Who are we? Why does this race that our white ancestors so mistreated continue to captivate us? What are we looking for?
Dennis Wilen (the-voidmstr) Mon 10 Oct 05 11:29
Is music special? In America, the law is English, the humor is Jewish, the music is African-American and the food is pizza.
Low and popular (rik) Mon 10 Oct 05 11:30
Kevin, do you think that Eminem is another Vanilla Ice, or do you think there might be something more there? And why, or why not.
Darrell Jonsson (jonsson) Mon 10 Oct 05 11:50
<scribbled by jonsson Tue 11 Oct 05 00:31>
David Wilson (dlwilson) Mon 10 Oct 05 14:19
Kevin In your sections on jazz, you never really address the question of why whites are facinated with being black. Bebop was a life style that besides the clothing, slang, and other expressions, was really about being "cool." Cool was a posture that came about when black musicians wanted to be treated as artists instead of entertainers. During WW2 and the postwar, blacks had entered the work force and held down "good" jobs and they didn't want to go back to the menial work. Cool was a mechanism to deflect the conflict between the view of blacks as equals and the reality of racial discrimination. Then there is the ugly subject of heroin. Charlie Parker played like a god and everyone wanted to play like him. He was also an out-of-control junkie. The fallacy was if you wanted to play like Bird, you had to live like him. Drugs continued to play a large role in the jazz music scene and spilled out into the wider society. The 1950's and 60's were the time of addiction and cleaning up.
Kevin Phinney (kevinphinney) Mon 10 Oct 05 14:57
Let's take the last comment first. It's a good catch, David, and you're right. Aside from a brief couple of episodes involving Mezz Mezrow, I didn't spend any time in the area you mention. To my mind, there were already so many examples of whites wanting to be black, and this was the period when "Crow Jim" came along -- reverse discrimination among musicians. Some believe that be-bop was created as one way to exclude whites. This is something we hadn't seen before, and I decided to focus there instead. What you're saying I agree with entirely.
Kevin Phinney (kevinphinney) Mon 10 Oct 05 15:04
Rik, I don't think Eminem is another Vanilla Ice, and I'm not really sure Vanilla Ice was, either. Let me explain: Vanilla ice -- Robert Van Winkle -- didn't really get into trouble until a prefabricated bio was issued by his record company suggesting he grew up on the wrong side of the tracks and had a rough-and-tumble childhood. I think he believes he felt the black impulse. But I also think he was just a pretty mediocre talent. Eminem, on the other hand, actually HAD the kind of upbringing that was invented by a publicist to promote Vanilla Ice. He's acknowleged by his black peers to be at the top of the rap game -- and he's self-aware. On "White America," the opening track of "The Eminem Show," he says it plainly, "Let's do the math/If Id'a been black, I woulda sold half." With "Stan," he made a piece of rap art that really set a new standard for candor. "Lose Yourself" is just terrifically compelling stuff. He's the real deal, and most agree on this.
Kevin Phinney (kevinphinney) Mon 10 Oct 05 15:12
And Darell, I like what you have to say. I agree, and my interviews and research turned up the same kinds of comments and evidence, which suggest that English teens identified strongly with blacks because they shared a sense of powerlessness and privation. I think Americans learn a lot from Brits, and on several occasions I suggest that Americans take their cues as to the next phase in music from the kids across the pond. Of course the reason this music continues to speak to us across cultures, decades and genres is exactly the kind of thing reflected in Dr. King's comment, and it really is one of the underlying themes of the book. Trite though it may sound, I believe that the differences between us are not nearly so great as the commonalities among us, and it's that universality which allows black-derived music to shoot right past all our mental judgments and strike us directly in the heart. Toni Morrison's comment is chilling, but unassailable. You're right on the money.
Sharon Lynne Fisher (slf) Mon 10 Oct 05 17:58
>wouda sold half What does that mean?
Kevin Phinney (kevinphinney) Mon 10 Oct 05 20:43
It means Eminem understands that white artists regularly sell double what their black counterparts are able to achieve, Of course this was true nearly 20 years ago, when the biggest rap album in the world was "License to Ill" by the Beastie Boys. It's also why "From the Cradle" was (and may still be) the top=selling blues album of all time, even though Eric Clapton is white.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Mon 10 Oct 05 22:11
Is it becoming less true? Doesn't OutKast outsell the Scissor Sisters?
Alex Tobin (texture) Tue 11 Oct 05 00:15
Unless mid-Seventies Elton John is considered 'rap' these days, I wouldn't categorize Scissor Sisters as such!
Darrell Jonsson (jonsson) Tue 11 Oct 05 02:59
You mention your curiosity about Hendrix, and why no one has really managed to match his success. Is stardom really the same as it was back then? In a way it seemed like the last of those 60s stars rode on the wake of phenomenal success of the Beatles. Perhaps part of the reason has to do with in a general change in the nature of stardom? Given that perhaps Prince has done well for himself relatively.
Kevin Phinney (kevinphinney) Tue 11 Oct 05 07:52
Sure, Jon, Outkast does outsell the Scissor Sisters, just the same way that Earth, Wind, and Fire outsold the New York Dolls. When you're talking about a niche group like Scissor Sisters, they're always gonna lose out financially to a mainstream act like Outkast. Darrell, I'd like to know more about what you're thinking before I reply. I think by and large that stardom is the same, but you may be referring to something of which I'm not aware. I really don't see much of a connection between the Beatles and Hendrix other than that they were working concurrently and dabbled in psychedelia. Help me understand the point you're trying to make. From my perspective, the rock world has been particularly unwelcoming to black rockers, Hendrix and Prince being the most notable exceptions. And let's not forget how MTV execs put it in the days before Michael Jackson and Prince broke the color line on that network. They're quoted in the book as saying that MTV is devoted to rock music, "and we play black artists whenever they release a rock record. It's just that most black performers don't record rock music." That's a paraphrase, but the point is essentially the same. Of course, the funny thing is ... now much of their programming is either rap or hip-hop, because that to a large extent is where the national conversation is taking place these days, and it's the focus of much of the youth culture. Not exclusively -- as the Scissor Sisters, Green Day, Franz Ferdinand, Coldplay and the Killers know very well.
Low and popular (rik) Tue 11 Oct 05 08:00
When discussing the success of Hendrix and Prince, it might be useful to note the white influences in their music that made it possible for them to cross over.
Berliner (captward) Tue 11 Oct 05 08:07
Right, but that never helped Funkadelic much.
Low and popular (rik) Tue 11 Oct 05 09:05
Still, that would be a useful part of the discussion.
Darrell Jonsson (jonsson) Tue 11 Oct 05 13:28
I find it hard to believe that stardom has not changed in the last 35 years. My point in part was that the Beatles seemed to hit a peak of worldwide stardom that was a hard act to follow. In a way it seemed Hendrix rode the tailend of the tranjectory of that level of stardom. Stars of that era still seem to hold a sort of pantheon in the charts and I'm not sure, maybe I'm wrong, but to index say the success of Lenny Kravitz or Prince against Hendrix is sort of like comparing the success of Nirvana to the Beatles. Lenny, Prince and Hendrix were though cross-over artists, most of Barry Gordy's crew though were also cross-over artists by design. Crossing over seems to be the trick, or maybe it isn't?
Darrell Jonsson (jonsson) Tue 11 Oct 05 13:29
<scribbled by jonsson Tue 11 Oct 05 13:29>
Kevin Phinney (kevinphinney) Tue 11 Oct 05 13:37
Hmmm...What was "white" about Jimi Hendrix? I'd have to say all that was white was his stage garb (which was actually more otherworldly than white), and the fact that his music seemed more rock-oriented than R&B oriented. Interestingly, his music became much more overtly black toward the end of his life...the R&B version of "Stone Free" on the Hendrix box was indicative, I think. And tunes like "Freedom" foretold a much more overt, if not miltant approach. Buddy Miles told me that he believed the reason Band of Gypsys broke up was because Hendrix's handlers didn't think a white rock audience wanted to see three negroes up onstage. With Prince, you have someone who never really renounced or embraced blackness. He said it well in "Controversy:" Am I black or white/ am I straight or gay..." That was his gimmick -- teasing and titillating his audience to come to their own conclusions about who he might really be. To paraphrase Eminem, Prince was saying "I am whatever you say I am." Whites and blacks were able to project onto the Prince persona whatever suited them best.
Kevin Phinney (kevinphinney) Tue 11 Oct 05 13:43
Darrell, I do understand what you're saying now, and agree. Like "LIFE" and "Look" magazines of the 1960s, these were 800 lb. gorillas in the marketplace, and now you have "Skateboarding" magazine and "Cigar Afficiando." The approach now is much more niche marketing, and much less in trying to win over a majority. So in that sense, yes, the idea of what it means to be a star has evolved, and you have people who know OF Lenny Kravitz and Outkast, but couldn't name a song by either, and you have Clint Black fans or Norah Jones fans who couldn't even hum the chorus to "I Like the Way You Move." Back in the 1960s, you had the Beatles and Otis Redding on the same stations as Frank Sinatra and Roger Miller. I'm not sure where race figures in, though -- and maybe you weren't suggesting that it does.
Kevin Phinney (kevinphinney) Tue 11 Oct 05 13:46
To correct myself again: There are R&B/hip-hop fans who don't know a thing about country, and some don't know much about the state of rock. Likewise, there are rock 'n' roll fans whose knowlege about 50 Cent and Usher is limited to what they see or hear on "Entertainment Tonight."
Low and popular (rik) Tue 11 Oct 05 14:47
"Hmmm...What was "white" about Jimi Hendrix?" It's as hard for white people to see as it is for fish to see water. White people only notice the "other" in black music and musicians, and tend to ignore the familiar. I was in college when Aretha released her version of "Respect", and we sat on the floor around candles, swigging Red Mountain, and arguing for hours as to whether white people could EVER learn to make music like that. Imagine our chagrin when we saw a picture of the studio band. I'd love to see a discussion of white influences on black music, but it's not going to happen because it's difficult for whites to see, and blacks probably aren't all that interested.
Kevin Phinney (kevinphinney) Tue 11 Oct 05 17:28
Well, Rik, I beg to differ. I believe that at the core of this topic is our own search to see why we don't understand one another better than we do, and if anything can be done in order to improve the quality and clarity of communication between us all. Toward that end, I videotaped a panel discussion on race and music during the Austin City Limits Music Festival a couple of weeks back. The panelists were Cyril Neville (who's celebrating a birthday here today -- his first as an Austinite) and his wife and vocalist Ganyielle (I'm guessing on the spelling here), Stevie Ray Vaughan drummer Chris Layton and Lyle Lovett. Granted some people consider it a silly parlor game to ask these questions, because the answers don't come easy; sometimes they don't come at all, and sometimes, they simply lead to more questions. But this kind of introspection I believe is important. We are always willing to rhapsodize on who we are as black and white people in songs and films and literature -- but how often do we actually discuss it? I agree with you (and chuckled at your analogy) that white people have as hard a time seeing the black experience in America as a fish does seeing water. As a gay man living in this society -- which is clearly set up for one set of people to "win the game," I understand how one person's experience can differ from another's, even though they're going through what appears to be identical circumstances. When my friend the comedian Bill Hicks died ten years ago, I wrote his obituary for the Austin American-Statesman. His brother Steve very generously called to thank me for what I'd written, but offered a correction. I'd written that Bill had a miserable childhood, and Steve wanted me to know that his parents treated both their boys like gold, and without any kind of favoritism. He'd felt that he'd had the best upbringing a guy could hope for. I told him how Bill had told me on numerous occasions that he'd had a miserable childhood. "It's not how you were treated," I told him, "but how you felt treated. Bill may have had the same experience you did and taken it entirely differently." So it is with blacks in America today. I think (as I wrote in the Preface) that blacks in America today can be sitting across the room from whites and have a completely different experience of the event, inflected by dint of race. I've no idea what your ethnicity is, but you're touching the bedrock of what fascinated me with this story at the outset. I'd like to hear more from you on the topic... so please, post some more.
Carl LaFong (mcdee) Tue 11 Oct 05 17:32
Well, back in the early 80s, a pal of mine came across an Afrobeat CD he really liked, great music all sung in a strange pidgin English, barely decipherable to American ears. After listening to it a few times, he realized that one of the tracks was a tribute to Jimmy Rodgers, the Singing Brakeman.
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