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Turn Me Loose White Man

Turn Me Loose White Man

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Turn Me Loose White Man

561 pagine
8 ore
Sep 16, 2020


Turn Me Loose White Man is a an examination of virtually all forms of American vernacular music throughout the first 60 years of the twentieth century. It includes a 30 cd set (available separately at and complete discussion and annotation of over 800 performances in the following genres: Ragtime, minstrelsy, blues, jazz, hillbilly music, country music, blues, rhythm and blues, folk, and rock and roll.
Sep 16, 2020

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Turn Me Loose White Man - Allen Lowe

Turn Me Loose White Man Or: Appropriating Culture: How to Listen to American Music, 1900-1960: Volume 1

Copyright © 2020, Allen Lowe

All Rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording or any information storage and retrieval system now known or to be invented, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer who wishes to quote brief passages in connection with a review written for inclusion in a magazine, newspaper or broadcast.

eBook Edition:

1827 Walden Office Square Suite 260,

Schaumburg, IL 60173, USA


eISBN: 978-0-9899950-5-4

To Helen, who, as I faded out, saved my life, watched me get back up and then fall back down again, saw me struggle just to fall further and further behind, and then saved my life all over again.

America of entertainment said, as a Negro you could sing and you could dance, but you couldn’t stand flat footed and talk to white folks.

—Dick Gregory

Table of Contents

Introduction by Greil Marcus

Introduction by Greg Tate

On Sources and Discography

About The Book


Introduction 1

Introduction 2

Chapter 1:Traditional Racism and Religiosity: Is This the Beginning of Country Music? (Or: Victims of Irony)

Chapter 2:The Dynamics of Resistance

Chapter 3:Christian Warfare: God’s Militia

Chapter 4:The Confederacy in Absentia

Chapter 5:Crimes of Sentiment: The Synchronized Swim of Country Folk

Chapter 6:Praying for Good Sex

Chapter 7:Proletarian Orchestras in Church

Chapter 8:Clueless In the Most Worldly Way

Chapter 9:The Rhythm Method: A More Subtle Kind of Resistance

Chapter 10:Plant-Based Courtship: I’ll Poke It Through The Window

Chapter 11:Love and Booty

Chapter 12:White Moments of Feeling: Smoking Himself Into The Studio

Chapter 13:Death Be Not Barefoot: Out of the Mouths of White People

Chapter 14:Victims of Style

Chapter 15:The Hawaiian Version of the Baja Marimba Band

Song List

Names and Song Index

Introduction by Greil Marcus

It’s daunting: from one perspective, Allen Lowe has produced a 350-page introduction to a twenty-page, fifteen-CD discography. And it’s only Volume 1, through 1931; according to the third sub-clause in the title, the whole will cover the first six decades of the twentieth century across fifteen more CDs and another book, but it won’t, not exactly: the first track of the thirty-one accompanying collections is Mr. Johnson’s Turn Me Loose by Ben Hanley from 1891 and the last is a version of Rabbit Brown’s James Alley Blues, recorded in New Orleans in 1927, as performed by Bob Dylan in Greenwich Village in 1962.

But exactly has never been the point with Allen Lowe, the most dedicated and ambitious musical anthologist America has ever produced. Though he follows in the footsteps of Harry Smith and his 1951 six-LP collection originally titled flatly American Folk Music, attending only to music commercially released—that is, records that at any given time some people thought other people might find worth paying for, an aesthetics of a market economy, no field recordings in churches, in prisons, on the street, for that matter in fields—Smith moved on, and Lowe (with a few exceptions in Volume 2) has stayed on the case.

He began with the 1997 American Pop: An Audio History—From Minstrel to Mojo: On Record, 1893–1946, which redefined such formerly at least putatively separate realms as country, movie songs as radio hits, blues, jazz, and more into a music speaking a common tongue. It was a nine-CD box set with conventionally informative but brief notes. There followed the 2001 four CD Rhapsody in Black: Music of the Harlem Renaissance and the epic 36-CD That Devlin’ Tune: A Jazz History 1900–50, both in 2001, and in 2013 the spelunking 36-CD, one-book set Really the Blues? A Blues History 1893–1959—all but the last of which too were conventionally formatted, if anything but conventional in their radical revisionings and reconstructions of supposedly settled traditions into unsettled legacies.

As the searing cover of Turn Me Loose White Man makes plain, Allen Lowe has a map, a territory, and an argument in his new project—America as a culture of white-on-black appropriation (to use the insufferably polite but necessarily ambiguous term)—to the point of, if necessary, the erasure of those who have been appropriated. It’s set forward in his first pages with such clarity and openness that there is no need to even comment on it.

What I want to talk about is how Lowe’s writing in Turn Me Loose White Man (though really, he could have extended the time line to 1959 to make room for Fabian) affirms two qualities that should be standard but in music writing are rare. He is as sensitive to the most subtle distinctions in a piece of music, to its siblings and Potter’s Field ancestors and unacknowledged children as any inspired academic musicologist, or for that matter the late Nick Tosches. And he is always alive to discovery, the sense of event one feels when a performer one has never heard of and can’t make sense of pierces the heart with a combination of sounds—instrument, voice, melody, a backdrop of the commonplace and at the center a distinct individual or a group no sociology could have predicted and no scholarship can confine—making an argument about life.

I could go to any number of sections on whiskey-jar waving fiddlers, New York City singers white and black, holiness choruses or Bing Crosby, but I’m drawn to near the end of Volume 1—when over a mere two pages Lowe turns to the Mississippi bluesman Son House and the records he made in 1930s. What’s signal is Lowe’s description of the country blues of House and his contemporaries Charley Patton, Tommy Johnson, Willie Brown, Skip James, and Robert Johnson as a music of wisdom and loathing—and the way the phrase can go right past you, as if it’s a cliché blues mavens have been battering around since the 1940s. That it is Lowe’s alone, and instantly opens up the stories told in any song to which it might apply, speaks for how utterly lacking in pretension or preening Lowe’s writing is. And the phrase, in the way it makes a map of a certain music that can never be definitively filled in, or definitively read even if it could be, opens up the reader to Lowe’s credo, the essence of his mission and the response he knows is there in any reader who might follow him: to honor the relation between people long dead and those listening to them now in disbelief that they could ever die. The idea of the blues reflecting a material struggle with life and events, only explains part of the blues’ where, when, and why, Lowe writes—and he could be writing for any of the hundreds of artists whose work he has brought together here when they break the boundaries of received ideas and second-hand style. Yes, he goes on, it is such a struggle, but the results immediately remove the blues, at its highest level of artistic achievement, from the history which led to its creation. Maybe this is a paradox, but in the most basic terms it is the reason why any of this reaches us on a personal and visceral level.

Otherwise we would do as well to just read about it, Lowe finishes: (irony alert). But there is no irony. It’s just this that allows Lowe to take on a record as deeply plumbed as Geeshie Wiley’s 1930 Last Kind Words Blues—a record he himself has written about more than once, along with scores of others, a record whose lake is bottomless—as if neither he nor anyone else had ever heard it before. Forget that this is an old blues record: think about what Lowe says as if he’s writing about a painting by Jackson Pollock, a poem by Emily Dickinson, or a speech by Abraham Lincoln. Here the person telling her particular story—with some lines that have been floating in the American air since the previous century, others that appeared in no song before it and none after, with a backdrop that seems to change every time you think you have glimpsed it whole—is offering blues-out-of-body exeperiences. She is like a first-person-third-person narrator. She is her own witness.

In Turn Me Loose White Man, Allen Lowe is her witness. He too is his own witness. And he is leading others, readers and listeners, to take that role too.

Introduction by Greg Tate

Like most things worthy of serious deliberation in America life, the making of American music is a febrile and contentious racial battleground.That much of the nation’s most significant music was made by people of African descent striving, creatively thriving, and dying under the weight of US apartheid aka, Jim Crow, means any serious study of American musical history can’t run from the history of American racism. The Black presence within American music making has left indelible markers on the practice no matter whether for communal pleasure or for capital gain.

In Turn Me Loose White Man Or: Appropriating Culture: How to Listen to American Music,1900–1960 Volume 1, Allen Lowe gives himself a concertedly narrow frame—select early recordings produced by Black and white-identifying Americans made between those years which speak the musical vernaculars we know today as gospel blues, jazz and country. The catch is that these selections emerge before those genres have hardened (and in some cases fossilized) into the cages of formalized and racialized convention we know and love (when not loathe) them by today.

Lowe, a formidable jazz saxophonist, composer and educator in his own right, is very much intrigued by the experimental devils in the poetic details of his archaic selections. He draws out the musicological features which distinguish them from the thousands of performances also brought to market in his studies’ core years. At the same time he’s committed to using these dusty and delicate slices of historic vinyl to extract as much insight as possible about the race-complicated social matrices they cast incandescent shadow and abysmal light upon. (He also gifts us with thirty compact discs of the songs described in his text.)

Thus will a reading of the Georgia Yellow Hammers ‘Kiss Me Quick’ begin by gently asking Did bluegrass reflect, vocally, a secular adaptation of gospel quartet vocal techniques? ‘Kiss Me Quick’ (10/18/28)... is somewhat unusual for its time in that its harmonies are tightly organized and scored. Lowe then goes on to reveal that, the Yellow Hammers were not only a very popular hillbilly band whose songs were performed into the modern Folkie era, but they also worked frequently with the Black father and son guitar/fiddle team of Jim and Andrew Baxter, before audaciously concluding with from what I know about the variations of Jim Crow, there were indeed sections of that region in which white/Black interactions, though never by any means equal, were calmed by local custom and by generations of close commercial and personal relationships (and more inter-marriages than were reported or publicly acknowledged).

Lowe also has snark to spare—a quality rare in many early music geek-overrun endeavors - on such pedantic, and still academically contested topics as to whether the blues originated in the Mississippi Delta based on the strong but anecdotal evidence we have: Wikipedia, which should be our friend, notes that vocal styles in Delta blues range from introspective and soulful to passionate and fiery, but what else is new? Vocal styles in Gregorian chants probably ranged from introspective and soulful to passionate and fiery. Sure. And your mama’s method of child rearing emphasized breast feeding and regular naps. And she was from Wisconsin, which tells us that child rearing was invented in Wisconsin.

Lowe’s writing stays as animated, lively and enthusiastic about dozens of performers and songs unfamiliar to contemporary listeners. The archive can seem a hotbed of esoterica that suits the author’s fancy, but there is a teleology to Lowe’s voluminous cataloguing and annotating of early Black music (and Black music derived) esoterica. He provides a revelatory maze of an experimental music road map that led to those masterful consolidating and game-changing genius-figures we revere today—particularly Louis Armstrong, Robert Johnson and Charlie Parker:

When I was first starting to write about this music it occurred to me that art at the lower frequencies – like the blues, early jazz, hillbilly music and other disreputable systems – though it is rarely viewed as art in the formal sense, actually behaves in exactly the way I just described, though the process and the timeline often differ. In jazz, for example, first Louis Armstrong and then Charlie Parker made the most radical transitions, taking music that had stylistically run its course and renewing it by challenge its manner of phrasing, rhythm, and presentation...Robert Johnson, whose importance some have tried to downplay, was to the blues what Parker was to jazz – a ‘sudden’ and radical reorganization of its basic technical elements and a challenge to a form that had pretty much worn itself down through repetition of its basic musical gestures.

Lowe doggedly makes readers pay attention to several vernacular lost worlds of influential Black sound-making and its hillbilly offshoots and reboots. In so doing, the author has provided us with an eloquent, entertaining and exploratory deep dive into the genome of American music -making. Along the way, Lowe gleefully dredges up and elucidates the nation’s long underpaid and under-acknowledged debts, material and spiritual, to scores of forgotten Black musical innovators, and those of other hues they lit a sonorous flame under.

On Sources and Discography

This whole project, book and CDs, was less a labor of love than of necessity. I conceived this book, or some version of it, a few years back and then started, with various stops and starts, to work on it. And then, just as I was getting set to work in earnest, in the Fall of 2019, I got very sick and had to go through two months of very brutal cancer treatments, of chemo and radiation (and this was after I had had a substantial pre-sale of the book and the CDs to go with it). All in all this process set me back about six months. As soon as I was able to I started to write again. I worked relatively rapidly (fortunately most of the CD restoration and mastering work had been finished prior to my illness) and realized, as things went along, that, book-wise, this would have to be a two-volume work (of which this is Volume 1).

As for necessity, what I mean is that I have long thought, in my own slightly messianic way, that the work I am doing needed to be done for the historical record. The world of American roots music writing is problematic; I see a lot that is either historically wanting, technically challenged (meaning that writers tend to not have a lot of essential musical knowledge, which often, though not always, hampers their evaluations of the music), or academically deprived. I do believe that academic work on American music has gotten progressively worse and worse, for reasons over which I can only speculate, though I am happy to do so: the field of academic American music writing has become like a crowded public swimming pool on an insanely hot day. There isn’t much room left in which to swim but we jump in anyway, fantasizing over the speed laps we are running, when in fact we are really just treading water and going nowhere, trying to just not bump into the guy next to us.

Though yes, there are notable exceptions to that rule.

Originally this was going to be a Country music history, but as I researched (and upon receiving some good advice) I decided to fold up the country music entries within a larger and more comprehensive study. Still, I think it is possible that, isolated, this would work well as a history of that music. But within this book one will also find examples of jazz, pre-jazz, pre-country, minstrel, pop, ragtime, folk, blues, rhythm and blues, gospel, show music, and rock and roll.

As for the book (both volumes) and the 30 CD set, which may be purchased in conjunction with it; this is really the last such project I will do, at least without a grant or a substantial cash advance (meaning that, yes, this is really the last such project I will do). So I have tried to be as broad in scope and as illuminating as I can humanly be. I am sure there are things I left out which should have been included, and I am certain that there are details that I have gotten wrong (please see my email address, below) or words misspelled.

So here we are. I stand by most of what’s in this book, and apologize for technical errors (this was a massive and one-man job from writing to researching to mastering to restoration). If you have anything to correct, please feel free to email me at I can take it (maybe).

As for discography; I have done my best to make clear what each recording is, who is on it of prime importance, and when it was recorded. I just did not have the time or the means to do it in as complete a way as I, and I am sure more than a few readers, might have liked. For more specifics or to blame someone else I will refer you to Tony Russell and Bob Pinson’s Country Music Records: A Discography, 1921–1942 and John Godrich and Robert Dixon’s Blues and Gospel Records: 1890–1943. Aside from those extremely worthy sources, the internet has become a very good floating data base of useful information. Use it carefully, like anything else, but use it. Wikipedia, which I cite a few times herein, is only as good as whoever has written the citation, and I have to say it has been extremely useful and helpful. Time to make a contribution.

Please note that some of the recorded sources used on the CD set are extremely rough. Because of financial limitations, everything within the set came from my own collection, and I restored all of it to the best of my ability, which is not to say that there is anything wrong with my restoration programs; any restoration engineer will tell you that any restoration is only as good as its source. Yes, one can do wonders these days with some very rough sources, but at certain levels of noise one is forced to compromise so as not to completely destroy or alter the material.

About the Book

One thing I noticed as I re-read the book was that, as pleased as I was with the way it came out, it has a fair amount of repetition. Such repetition is the nature of the beast – a book with about 800 individual notations on a subject as subjectively descriptive as music is not meant to be read, necessarily, in a linear way (or of course at one sitting). Some points need to be made more than once – in relation to music cited in one part of the book that is similar to music cited in another part of the book – and I am also working on the assumption that many people, even as they read the whole, are also going to use this as they do a sourcebook, for general perusing and occasional reference.


I am very afraid I am going to leave out someone of importance. But thanks to the late Larry Gushee, who taught me more about music history and its method of study than he ever realized; to the late Richard Gilman, who taught me more about how to consider and write about culture than he ever realized, though I did try to explain this to him in some later conversations we had (and I think he understood and was gratified by my acknowledgment of his pervasive influence); Matt Glaser of the Berklee College of Music, who helped me solidify the concept of this project, is an all out great guy, and who has helped support my work in many ways; Ricky Riccardi of the Louis Armstrong Museum, who, though he offered little direct advice on this project, is a constant inspiration and a model of not just how a busy public figure comports himself on a daily basis, but of how he treats people and of how, while even in the pursuit of basic historical truths and realities, and even on the busiest of days, he remains kind and accessible; Seton Hawkins of Jazz at Lincoln Center who has supported my work and facilitated my more public efforts and just been a steadfast friend and colleague; Greg Tate, who came through for me at a time when I was probably at my lowest ebb physically and mentally, and when I needed some guidance and a trusted second opinion, not to mention what an inspiration his own work has been; Lewis Porter, friend and brilliant musician and historian, for numerous conversations, each one of which has clarified some essential way of looking at music history; Kevin Ray, musical collaborator and altogether good guy who kept checking in on me during those months when I wasn’t particularly sure I would ever be physically or mentally stable enough mentally to continue this book, not to mention follow through and actually finish the damn thing; Loren Schoenberg, old friend, one of the most insightful musicians and historians that I know, a fount of musical knowledge and insight; Greil Marcus, once again, an inspiration in his writing and his vision and his consistency and kindness; Dick Spottswood, who I have not seen in some years, who is not only a personal inspiration but someone without whom the study of American vernacular music would be either a dead or lifeless thing; all the Facebook crowd, who have not only supported my work and my music but whose constant and consistent support and kindness propped me up on those dark days when just getting out of bed seemed a near impossibility.

—Allen Lowe 3/16/20

Introduction 1

Is it important to clarify what I mean by the main title of this new collection and book, Turn Me Loose White Man? Given the rawness of our current political atmosphere, yes. And I have to admit I ran the title by a few trusted friends before finally deciding to use it.

There is a recording, from 1902, which fits very neatly into what I would call the immediate pre-history of country music, by the white singing duo Cantrell and Williams, of a song called Mississippi River Song Tapioca. At one point in the tune the obviously-white singer - portraying a black character, and in the midst of warbling about working on the Mississippi River amongst the darkies and other happy workers - yells out turn me loose, there, white man. It is a jarring moment, representing, I would say, a kind of transference of the desire by a white man for artistic freedom onto the other, the black man, in the guise of demanding cultural/expressive liberation. Set me free, the white singer seems to be demanding, by making me as black as I am pretending to be. The call is clearly for cultural liberation in the guise of a classic minstrel taunt, of white men exposing black men for pretensions of free-minded independence. Less apparent is how singer and audience of the time perceived this call for action – was it simply a matter of comic silliness? Of contempt for the futility of any black notion of equality? Was it a staged impersonation, regarded by the audience as being as good as the real thing but safer and more manageable as long as white people were in charge? Or was it just a good, fun, catchy phrase in the midst of a catchy tune?

Given how minstrelsy (not unlike current white representations of black expression in the way white people dress, move, and use the idea of hip-hop time and lyrics) represents a complex love/hate/fear view by white people of African Americans, this is a perfect example of imitation as a protective barrier of privilege: Black me up and I will be free, and then when I am done I will be really free (in other words, white). You have a white man portraying a black man, and the white man is not only in a position of power and privilege but is, ironically or not, expressing something that has historical resonance because it is being said at a time in American life when not only is black music struggling to overcome white hegemony, but Black America, in a political and social sense, is doing the same.

To me this, for the white singer, represents a different kind of double consciousness, though we have no idea if the white man who is singing has any sense of the deeper meaning of the gesture, or of the nastiness of the irony involved. Minstrels were actors and impersonators, yes, but their manner betrayed a sly - if racist - commentary on their actions, a simultaneous, social call and response, as though they were saying, or, really, being, one thing while meaning another, as part of a secret yet openly exposed pact with their equally racist audience. And yet - they were smart enough to create enough distance between their words and implied actions to allow for what politicians now call plausible deniability: the singer in this never says explicitly that he is portraying the black character as deluded; his words indicate the opposite. There is no obvious and audible proof, in the recording itself, that this exists in a false and racist reality; in order to know that, you have to extrapolate from not only the whole method of minstrelsy but also from the mass conditions of African Americans at the time this was made – something of which many white people were of no doubt aware, but which probably just seemed to most of them like the natural state of things in the post-Adam and Eve world. If in today’s America millions of white folks can say, as they have, that white people are as discriminated against as black people are (or more so, according to some polls I have seen), you can imagine how much less evolved the political landscape was 120 years ago. And at the time this was recorded there was no consensus, among white people, that minstrelsy was intrinsically evil; among black people, yes, but not necessarily among black entertainers, thousands of whom made a professional living in the minstrel field. Hence deniability, plausible or not.

As for, finally, the title of this book and of this collection, the history of American music, to my ears, is essentially a timeline of African Americans liberating themselves in sound, creating an alternative history to that which has been imposed on them. As a title and reference it is meant to evoke the not-so-straightforward way in which this has been achieved. Musically it implies nearly every form of American song as it grew out of our national consciousness, through cultural collision and white and black action and reaction. In other words, in the glib terminology with which we sometimes by necessity describe such things, white music is black music and black music is white music, by force of habit and culture and by mass shifts in taste and intellectual convenience. Out of all of these come certain essential American musical forms, and out of these essences come this book.

That’s what I really think, though as I write this I brace myself for any possible negative reactions. Though, like Cantrell and Williams, I feel somewhat hopeful, if not secure, in the knowledge that plausible deniability still exists, at least in my world, for liberals and other well meaning white people.

Introduction 2

Where does one start with American music, and where does one end? There are some obvious musical signposts, as I call them, that serve well as beginnings, origins, sources. There are less clear endings, places that mark the discontinuation of styles, sound, and movements. Sometimes certain things seem to disappear, only to reappear as something else or something that seems like something else. Racial crossover comes, goes, complicates itself by way of musical and social changes and even alterations in the body politic, and becomes charged with modernist essences that often co-exist with much more conservative artistic impulses.

In this book we will browse the music, using specifics to make generalizations, generalizations to cue specifics. We will go from CD 1 to CD 30 of the accompanying set, representing each as chapters, small but significant episodes of American music in the first 60 years of the 20th century. We will work from the assumption that the conventional wisdom – of American music as a fusion of expression both black and white – is both technically correct and grossly insufficient as a means by which to analyze what has happened in that music and why.

To this end I have developed my own conventional wisdom, based on not only all the music I have listened to but also on certain conditioned intellectual and emotional responses. My instinct in this sense was honed by a mixed sense of aesthetic worship and social consciousness – a true belief in art for art’s sake, yes, and a social consciousness not strictly or even necessarily determined by material politics, but simply one that reflects an awareness and associated understanding of what happens and why – or why not – in the national musical conversation, and of the aesthetic and racial dynamics involved. I don’t argue now and never have that America, in the commercial or business sense, represents a level playing field for black and white musicians, but I do argue that at some point those black and white Americans converge, for both better and worse, aesthetically. Of course to understand the 20th century of American music one has to understand the 19th century, with its composites of both stationery and travelling entertainments, some of the most distinctive of which, whether we like it or not, lead out from minstrelsy and/or the minstrel impulse. The problem, I think, however, with the hot button term of minstrelsy is that it is not, to my mind, what most people think it is. Sure, the surface of minstrelsy was racist caricature, and below that surface was a deep contempt for, as others have said, black bodies, for the whole idea of black people as human beings. And yet below even that surface, as many revisionist-minstrel-historians have claimed, was an essence of black sound and movement – sonic movement sometimes, physical movement at others, though often the two are/were inseparable. Buried deep as it was, it was still audible and reclaimable,

There are a few important writers in this area whose work I particularly admire, and these come to mind (sorry if I am leaving any important ones out): Eric Lott, Doug Seroff and Lynn Abbott, Berndt Ostendorf, Dale Cockrell, Robert Tolls, W.T. Lhamon. What connects their work is a sense that through the racialist scrim of minstrelsy’s merge of black/white can be sensed, or heard, a more complex struggle between, not just black and white but also between life and death, the life of black creativity and its struggle against the death knell of white power. We hear and see the beginning of an aesthetic merger in which blackness is clearly and profoundly victorious; still, whiteness survives by its own self destructive need to dominate, its propensity for a kind of cultural genocide in which its arrogance contained the seeds of both its own destruction and, paradoxically, its survival.

This may be the reason for the ultimate strangeness of American music and culture; black people begin the process by which the deepest and most meaningful aspects of cultural definition begin; whites grab at those black sources and symbols of psychic and physical freedom with both frustration and a sense of privilege and superiority, even as the grab itself belies any claim they might have or self-image they might covet of supremacy; blacks stay, as usual, creatively just out of reach in terms of cultural originality and newness, one clear step ahead of their white followers, like runaway slaves whose trail is always fresh yet fatally cold for the paterollers who come after them with a misplaced confidence and an implied and unearned arrogance. Yet, in the end, the result is neither loss nor victory for either party. Money flows more in one direction than the other, the white instinct for power and domination leads to certain essential and lasting kinds of power and domination, and yet black survivals continue to tease and taunt the failing yet persistent sources of this power and domination.

It is as though white will and struggle is an end in itself, and creates, even as political and social relationships alter radically, a kind of cultural standoff. The very refusal of white artists to concede becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: American culture is black culture to the core, yet whites who work within its broad outlines regularly assimilate in ways which are not merely expressions of economic power but often seem, through sheer will and imaginative balance and intelligence, to be of undeniable artistic strength and resourcefulness. The racial and racist source of advantage becomes like a kind of political original sin for white people, neither to be denied nor to become a source of selfflagellation, because guilt, important for purposes of political reformation, is too great a burden to be borne indefinitely. Ultimately the selfish urge for creativity and economic survival wins out. The culture (and in the case of this book, the music) goes on. Whites, quite literally, have largely been content to fiddle while the rest of the world burns. So let us see how, and maybe why, some of that happened.

—Allen Lowe 7/6/19

"I told Monk that some of his intervals surprised me. They would sound unusual, but when I checked them out, they were ordinary fifths, sixths, sevenths. It was his touch that made them sound different. He nodded and said ‘it can’t be any new note. But if you mean a note enough it will sound different. You got to pick the notes you really mean!’

Bill Crow from his book

Birdland to Broadway

Chapter 1

Traditional Racism and Religiosity: Is This the Beginning of Country Music? (Or: Victims of Irony)

Personally I accept the assumption that a great deal, if not all, of American music is rooted in forms that derive in some way from Minstrelsy. You don’t have to agree; however, later on, in the reading list I will provide some useful sources to refer to in trying to understand this difficult yet essential form. Yes it was racist (but also yes, it made fun of not just black people but of women, the Irish, the Dutch, the Germans, etc; and any number of other immigrant groups); yes it was dominated by men, both black and white, in blackface makeup. Yes, it was, in this sense and many others, demeaning to African Americans (actually, all people of African descent). And yes, it contained the roots of country music in repertoire, humor, and instrumentation; of the American pop repertoire and the development of a commercial class of songwriter; of classic blues accompaniment (there is a report somewhere – long lost among my sources, I am sorry to say - of a singer being accompanied by a banjoist playing a melodic response to his vocal); and was the root of the translation and transition of gospel music and spirituals into the commercial world. There is also a credible report of a ring shout vocal/dance as performed on the minstrel stage. The early vernacular rhythms of minstrelsy, and its use of the banjo, likely predicted and effected early jazz. The transfer of the minstrel gesture to other stages – traveling shows, medicine shows, street performance, parades, vaudeville, circuses, and the new and essential black minstrel stage – created a mass movement of sound and motion that had shattering effect on all of not just American music but, categorically, American culture.¹

A lot of this is reflected in the commercial rise of the recording industry which, after the 1890s, grows increasingly diverse in its categorizations and coverages. And though this is a selective – and 30 CD – look at those (primarily, in this study, American) individuals who comprise(d) those categorizations and coverages, it gives us, nevertheless, a good look at what happened after minstrelsy, as a style and form, passed its commercial peak, as the American consciousness began to show some, if fleeting, signs of reconciling itself with black creativity; and as black consciousness, post-reconstruction and emancipation, came under not just increasing attack but also rose significantly to defend itself.

I defer to Ed Berlin² for some deeper and better-researched reflections on the pianist and composer Ben Harney’s origins. Eubie Blake and some others swore he was black, though he clearly presented as white. Was he passing? Berlin has theorized that Harney had Melungeon ancestry; the Melungeons were Appalachians with a mixed genetic and social heritage, part of which was African, though apparently this connection was, in the interest of survival against the casual threat of racist violence in its day, regularly suppressed.³ Was the reality, as I once suggested, that Harney was white for white people, black for black people? The best (or worst?) of all possible worlds (meaning: deny your heritage for one group, but grab it back in a temporary and short-term manner for the next)? Harney was a major figure, a popular performer/pianist who composed some the earliest music that established a commercial beachhead for ragtime.

He was clearly an estimable pianist, or probably much more than that; none other than James P. Johnson, the great stride pianist, admired Harney’s playing. Harney was also an important songwriter in the emerging style of ragtime-related coon songs (songs which employed ragtime-type syncopations, plus lyric content which was sometimes just crudely stereotyped and racist, and at other times seemed weirdly predictive – though cause and effect is difficult to determine - of certain aspects of black composition and humor up to and including hip hop, in which the bluntness of racial stereotype and epithet is used as a kind of preemptive defense mechanism).⁴ Harney was also a significant performer who helped spread the word about the new music while touring with his famous Stick Dance, an early example of dance’s deep impact on popular music. His composition Mr. Johnson Turn Me Loose (1891) which we will hear in several versions (including one from a generation later by a hillbilly band) was a huge success, and we are lucky to have this version by the man himself. Harney is unaccompanied here but phrases, perhaps, like Otis Blackwell on his Elvis demos (another and more complicated story in itself, because Blackwell seems less, based upon what I have heard, and as opposed to legend, like he influenced Elvis’ style than that he adapted to it in order to make his songs work for the King). At the least, Harney was working to reflect the au courant popular vocal style as it spread from minstrelsy outward.

Of course, if we understood Ben Harney as being black, and nothing else, we might interpret his language and his style in a different way. For now we have the recordings and an understanding of the commercial impact of those recordings and they will have to do. As for Mr. Johnson Turn Me Loose, there is also a superb version by Silas Leachman, from 1901, who engages in what I can only describe as ragtime diction, in which the music’s duple rhythms are closely translated into march-like vocalisms. The unknown pianist keeps up admirably. From a year later we hear a version of what was Harney’s first major song success, You’ve Been A Good Old Wagon But You Done Broke Down by Len Spencer (1902). Spencer (whose Climb the Golden Fence from the late 1890s is essentially a compendium/recital of ‘pickaninny mischief’ told with an Uncle-Remus like ‘wisdom’ and perspective) is an interesting figure chronicled by Tim Brooks in his book Lost Sounds.

Very young when he started to record, Spencer rose quickly in the business to executive status. Spencer was also a very good performer, and his voice melts into the foreground in what has become, by the time he records, a standard mix of minstrel diction and minstrel-stage growl. I am struck, on this as well as on some other recordings from this era, by the pianist, whose playing is so letter perfect. There have been arguments over the years about how free ragtime rhythm was in its original sound and interpretation, and the rhythmic consistency of these anonymous accompanists may constitute the only evidence we have in this regard. The playing on this, just possibly, confirms my poorly-sampled impression that the music was still very much tethered to a relatively gentle foot-tapping-2 beat (as opposed to stomping), struggling to find a way to liberate itself.

Further evidence as to the accuracy of Harney’s musical impression of early commercial ragtime is Arthur Collins’ interpretation (1902) of another great coon-song success, All Coons Look Alike to Me, written by Ernest Hogan. Hogan was a black entertainer who became famous on the black minstrel stage (in which, it must be argued, African American performers became stealth invaders of the American popular imagination and music world). The general idea was that if the music of minstrelsy was going to become the commercial model for popular culture, it ought to be re-appropriated from those who lifted it in the first place, even as arguments persisted as to how authentic - or not - the minstrel origins of such material was in racialist and folkloric terms (and yet, certain and relatively recent books and journal articles have actually done a more-than-credible job of showing that, yes, white minstrels often modeled themselves after the real thing; see the reading list).

Hogan’s compositional success was also his undoing in a personal sense. Of course the song title says it all. Ironically enough, though it seems to reference white people’s inability to distinguish one black person from another, it was about something else altogether – the song is sung from a women’s perspective, saying, in essence, that if she loses one man she can easily get another, because they are pretty much all alike; shades of a later pop/blues song in which men are described as being like streetcars: if one gets away, no need to fret, as another will be along any minute.

Just as significant are the impressions of black entertainer Thomas Fletcher, who describes how important this song was, in its time, as a composition and stylistic indicator. All Coons Look Alike to Me, he says in his book 100 Years of the Negro in Show Business, was one of the first songs to define the burgeoning market for ragtime/coon songs, and opened up a lot of opportunities for black entertainers (and, as Hogan himself said, colored and white songwriters, who used his example to write more idiomatically and so claim at least some payment for their efforts). This was the way, Fletcher tells us, ragtime was played in the back rooms of the cafes and other such places. As Hogan describes it I put it on paper.

Fletcher’s chronicle makes it clear that this period in black and white entertainment was full of activity, invention, and opportunity for black artists, and he seems to believe that Hogan’s apostasy was not just forgivable but a necessary stage in the gradual reclamation by black artists of black music and its audience. Hogan for his part was condemned by black critics, black audiences, and black intellectuals, and, though his career was varied and economically successful, he never lived down his association with a hated social and musical stereotype.

Great Moments in American Racism: Well, you decide. A few years back a collector came up with quite an amazing discovery, an 1894 recording of a song called Haul The Woodpile Down by a black gentleman named

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