Keeping the American in African American

Posted by: on January 31, 2013

I’ve been working on a way of expressing my feelings about an issue which has come up through a lot of my recent reading – the relative influence of African Caribbean music on American music. The following, subject to change without notice, will get me started:

One particular thing that has got me going in the last few months has been my own personal research into the ‘roots of roots’ music, so to speak, relative to the pointed emphasis in some academic writing on the African and African-Caribbean sources of American song. While I generally concur on the importance of these lineages, more and more I have come to the conclusion that the academic obsession with such is a form of avoidance of the more complexly layered (and extremely disreputable) sources of the American vernacular. Meaning: if one looks at the direct autobiographical testimony of those who witnessed American song at early and crucial stages of its development- (like: Lafcadio Hearn, Kid Ory, Mance Lipscomb, the Kansas City oral histories, Louis Armstrong, Willie the Lion Smith, Baby Dodds, Cousin Joe, Jelly Roll Morton) one realizes that at a key time of the music’s early development and documentation – the late 19th and early 20thcentury – cultural forces of great power (and of both bluntly religious virtue and deeply personal vice) are in play which, essentially, bury the African and African Caribbean influence under other not only methods of survival and pleasure, but also new ideas of rhythm and swing – not so much as to make those influences unrecognizable (the clave is a peripheral aspect of New Orleans’ first jazz stirrings, and central to the rise of rock and roll; and the African-Caribbean triplet is central to jazz swing); but so as to change them into something very specifically American and radically different from the song forms we see in other parts of the post-African Diaspora.

American music exists in the 19th century as a series of interlocking hybrid forms related most directly to Southern music but also to the rise of a class of professional songwriters and the marketing of sheet music. Also essential to our understanding of the spread of new American music is early African American migration North and West, the rise of music education, and the resultant training of musicians(both black and white) for public brass bands in the North and South. In the late 19th through early 20th century various strains of American music come together and then separate through vehicles of public entertainments: minstrel, circus and tent shows, brass band concerts, vaudeville and other mobile/travelling forms. As recording technology develops, these styles divide themselves into distinctly different forms of indigenous popular music – into ragtime and professional pop song (which overlap and include things like “coon” and ragtime songs a la Ernest Hogan, Al Bernard, Irving Berlin, George M. Cohan, Sophie Tucker, Arthur Collins, Bert Williams, Chris Smith, Shelton Brooks), the blues, jazz, and even pop/gospel. Into the 20th century the music continues to change, and divide itself racially and stylistically. So we get hillbilly music (and there were black hillbillies) more generalized country forms (think breakdowns, shouts, early African American pre-bluegrass and then bluegrass; and then essentially white forms like Western swing, country and western, honky tonk, et al); and African American songster forms that are closely related to both minstrel composition and folk sources, as well as to professionally published sheet music (as in the work of African American songwriters like Alec Rogers).

Jazz and the blues transform themselves from country forms into urban music, though of course their players co-exist with their country brethren, some of whom work hard (particularly in blues and songster forms) to maintain certain musical and social traditions (see John and Alan Lomax’s incredible body of field recordings). White country music, indebted to its own religious and mountain aesthetic, absorbs, in its early years, both the blues and minstrel song traditions and splits itself into its own versions of sinner and saint.

In all of this and in these years of incredible musical ferment the African and African-Caribbean element is not so much discarded as it is buried under a tidal wave of American culture. What some see as a “watering down” of black music I see as a natural progression, the development of a pop aesthetic that is truly multicultural in the American way, and which leads to a complicated layering of black and white influences and performance practices. All of which is informed, in its rhythms, tonality, social applications, and textual meaning (and in a way that is both close to yet psychologically distant from its African roots), by an essentially and pervasively African American aesthetic.

I will add what I believe is the reason academics and others tend to hammer home the message of the Caribbean influence, to such an exaggerated extent – simply put, they tend to be uncomfortable with the disreputable origins of American song, the venues – like whorehouses, violent jukes, minstrel stages – that helped to incubate this incredible Diaspora of sound. But like it or not American pop is the offspring of whores and their accompanists, blackfaced whites AND blackfaced blacks, and other assorted lower-life characters and hillbillies. It is easier – let us say more historically “dignified” – to point in other directions. It is also less accurate, in my opinion. If you don’t believe me, start by reading Jelly Roll Morton’s Library of Congress interview; just be sure you get the unexpurgated version (“if you don’t shake you don’t get no cake….”)…..

Filed Under: News


  1. Rory says:

    Interesting argument Allen. I can’t comment on the exaggerated emphasis on Carribean influences you highlight, because to be honest I have never noticed it. I do, however, find your idea that academics are somehow embarassed by the jook joint origins of Afican American music surprising. In my own experience, something like the opposite almost seems to be true, where for the most part when writers try to imagine the origins of the music, they can’t seem to think about it happening anywhere else but in a dark and dirty bar. The association of Black popular culture with vice is deep and abiding. One thing is true, if you’re right, this embarassment hasn’t hurt the career of Nick Tosches! That said, I would hazard that one element of the venues that is occluded is the homosocial and homoerotic. It’s an interesting question, but I would argue that the “official” history of Black music has more than embraced the idea of Saturday night, but has really downplayed the impact of Sunday morning! You mention Arizona Dranes in your other blog–I wonder how many folks who would self-identify as well read on the history of Blues/R&B/R&R know what instrument she played or have even heard of her. Similarly, can the spectacular non-recognition of a figure like James Reese Europe in the official history be attributed, in part, because Europe just doesn’t seem seedy enough to be “black.”

  2. Allen Lowe says:

    well, with academics, the awkwardness results in a desire to see the jukes and whorehouses as more effect than cause. Not that they don’t talk about that side of the equation – but they tend to see the those things as unfortunate and awkward reactions to social conditions; whereas I would argue (as would Jelly Roll Morton, I think) that they are the source of the real thing. And it’s easier to bury oneself in theory then in complicated aspects of life. As for Europe, I actually think he has become part of the canon; I see his name often enough. And the one name you mention – Tosches – is really not an academic. But for more material proof I would look at the kind of courses offered in music programs. I doubt we’ll see Jazz and The Sex Trade, or Junkies: The Life Blood of Bebop.

  3. Rick Faulkner says:

    Interesting – I guess I haven’t read the academic authors you’re referring to. I’ve always felt that in the past the whole Storyville angle of jazz’s development was overemphasized…made good press. Sure it’s part of it, but like John McCusker says in the Ory bio, it was only one component of a much broader New Orleans music scene. Morton obviously would emphasize it, since as a pianist he played a lot in the brothels; horn players less so.

    BTW, one reason that clave didn’t influence early jazz that much is that it didn’t become prominent in Cuban popular music until after jazz was already established. In the early 20th century the main Cuban genre was the danzon, based mostly on the cinquillo rhythm (in 4/4, quarter-8th-quarter-8th-quarter, or variants of that). Cinquillo comes to the Caribbean from Benin via Haiti; through Gottschalk and others it made its way into ragtime.

    This author isn’t an academic as far as I know, but this is an interesting article: I especially found interesting the connection between New Orleans guitar/banjo strumming patterns and West Indian music.

  4. Allen Lowe says:

    but wasn’t the Afro-Caribbean influence present prior to this, through the settlement of Haitian slaves and their playing in Congo Square? That’s my understanding.

  5. Rick Faulkner says:

    Right – and Gottschalk heard the music growing up in NOLA, and worked it into his light classical compositions as an adult (“Bamboula” e.g.). His immensely popular published pieces in turn influenced Joplin and other ragtime composers. In keeping with your thesis above, ragtime kept the syncopated melodies (probably also influenced by African-derived East Coast banjo music) but used a more foursquare rhythmic base.

    It would be an interesting study (if it hasn’t been done already) to explore how African/Carribean rhythms such as the bamboula managed to survive underground in New Orleans after the authorities cracked down on Congo Square in the mid-1800’s. My guess is in Mardi Gras parade rhythms, among other things. I’m also guessing that Cuban music became influential in NOLA in the early 1900s because it had a similar/compatible rhythmic base to what was already there.

  6. Jim Smethurst says:

    Well, you didn’t hurt my feelings too much, Allen. Your argument seems pretty sensible to me–though I need to process it a bit more.

  7. Allen Lowe says:

    well, Jim is one of the academics I will exempt from my criticism – and recommend the following, which he wriote (which, among other virtues, is one of the few academic works with a smart discussion of “coon” songs):

  8. Rob Chalfen says:

    on the LOC recordings, in connection with his ‘Spanish tinge’ compostions, Alan Lomax asks JR Morton if he’s familiar with Gottschaulk, and Morton said he was, but that’s as far as it went.

  9. Jim Smethurst says:

    Thanks for the plug, Allen.

Leave a Reply