The following essay was read on the Club Groove Café livestream on July 22, 2020 alongside the below listed mix. That set can be downloaded from the link provided at the bottom of this post.
There are indisputable and smudgy white fingerprints all over the history of recorded Black music. This mix I’ve put together aims to share a showcase of some of this music, a blend of African and Afro-Caribbean songs and Southern blues and folk tunes. This mix is both an appreciation of and an interrogation into how indelible the white fingerprints are on these documents, not just in their moments of recording but in their post-colonial presentation to the world today.
In his essay “Ballad Hunting in the Black Republic: Alan Lomax in Haiti, 1936-37” from Caribbean Studies Vol. 36, No. 2, Dr. Gage Averill, a musicologist and Dean of Liberal Arts at the University of British Columbia, speaks to the complicated legacy of Alan Lomax. Lomax is a towering figure of early recordings of Black music in America and other Colonial spaces. Dr. Averill expresses Lomax’s well meaning aims;
High among Alan Lomax’s goals was to salvage the collective memory of oral cultures, encoded in performance, from loss or disappearance under the impact of global modernity. His fascination with music of the folk emerged from a passionate egalitarianism: he believed that the expressions of the poor, working class, minorities and ethnic groups -- and those of peoples living around the globe without access to power or wealth -- deserved to be heard and preserved...he saw himself as an advocate for what he came to call ‘cultural equity’ for marginalized peoples by providing them (mediated) access to the means of cultural reproduction, especially broadcast and recording technology.
I am very fascinated, in a post-colonial way, in this idea of Gage’s parenthetical here, this “(mediated)” access to the means of reproduction for these musicians he recorded. We aren’t hearing Black music recorded by Black people. We are hearing Black musicians perform their music for a white collector. As with documentary film, the presence of a camera alters the reality of subjects. So too, the presence of a white microphone alters Black realities. Lomax -- who recorded several songs on this mix -- certainly performed a historical and cultural good by capturing and cataloging these musical documents. As our American musical identity has become so reliant on African and Black influence, we white Americans are now able to access a version of Black music and American culture by listening to these documents, but it is mediated, it is altered, it is smudged by white fingerprints. This mediation is systemic mediation.
So, this mix is both an act of appreciation for Black art and also a cry for awareness to the very complicated mediation that whiteness has demanded and continues to demand from Black art historically and presently. This mediation is more than this music, it is all of American history, it is art museums run by white curators showcasing African and Black art, it was the Beatles miming Black musical tropes for white audiences and becoming “the biggest band in the world.” It is great reissue and archival labels in 2020 using their white privilege to reissue these Black recordings to a curious audience. Even this little write-up is a mediation, but in this moment, it is a mediation with a glimmer of potential as opposed to one bogged down by oppression. It is a mediation between an antiquated white culture we are now starting to actively dismantle and a speculative and adaptive new white culture that we are just starting to imagine, one finally ready to acknowledge itself and longs to address its highly mediated history. Continuing to appreciate Black art in more active ways is central to this process, but racism, systemic racism...that is a white problem, and it requires white labor to fix it.
We have to start mediating our white culture back to ourselves in more sustainable ways, ways that are uncomfortably honest, ways that acknowledge the collective clumsiness that pervaded our pasts. I think that is the only way forward.
LINK TO WAV:
- Lionel Belasco - Venezuelan Little Tune
- Ed Young, Bessie Jones & Georgia Sea Islanders - Untitled Fife Tune w Clapping
- Tommy Johnson - Cool Drink of Water Blues
- Blind Blake - Southern Rag
- G Wayawaya - Dziko La Afrika
- Sexteto Bolona - Te Prohibido el Cabaret
- John Lee - Down at the Depot
- Memphis Jug Band - Stealin’ Stealin’
- Mississippi John Hurt - Louise Collins
- Buster Johnson - Undertaker Blues
- Fred McDowell - When You Get Home Please Write Me A Few of Your Lines
- Fred McDowell - Keep your Lamps Trimmed and Burning (instrumental reprise)
- Sid Hemphill & Lucius Smith - The Devil’s Dream
- Vera Ward Hall - The Last Month of the Year
- Ti Paris - Bam’ Pan’ La Dan’
- Lewlewal de Podor - Po Dou Ga
- Elizabeth Cotten - Honey Babe Your Papa Cares for You