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Arguing that pop music turns on moments rather than movements, the essays in Listen Again pinpoint magic moments from a century of pop eclecticism, looking at artists who fall between genre lines, songs that sponge up influences from everywhere, and studio accidents with unforeseen consequences. Listen Again collects some of the finest presentations from the celebrated Experience Music Project Pop Conference, where journalists, musicians, academics, and other culturemongers come together once each year to stretch...
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Arguing that pop music turns on moments rather than movements, the essays in Listen Again pinpoint magic moments from a century of pop eclecticism, looking at artists who fall between genre lines, songs that sponge up influences from everywhere, and studio accidents with unforeseen consequences. Listen Again collects some of the finest presentations from the celebrated Experience Music Project Pop Conference, where journalists, musicians, academics, and other culturemongers come together once each year to stretch the boundaries of pop music culture, criticism, and scholarship.
Building a history of pop music out of unexpected instances, critics and musicians delve into topics from the early-twentieth-century black performer Bert Williams’s use of blackface, to the invention of the Delta blues category by a forgotten record collector named James McKune, to an ER cast member’s performance as the Germs’ front man Darby Crash at a Germs reunion show. Cuban music historian Ned Sublette zeroes in on the signature riff of the garage-band staple “Louie, Louie.” David Thomas of the pioneering punk band Pere Ubu honors one of his forebears: Ghoulardi, a late-night monster-movie host on Cleveland-area TV in the 1960s. Benjamin Melendez discusses playing in a band, the Ghetto Brothers, that Latinized the Beatles, while leading a South Bronx gang, also called the Ghetto Brothers. Michaelangelo Matos traces the lineage of the hip-hop sample “Apache” to a Burt Lancaster film. Whether reflecting on the ringing freedom of an E chord or the significance of Bill Tate, who performed once in 1981 as Buddy Holocaust and was never heard from again, the essays reveal why Robert Christgau, a founder of rock criticism, has called the EMP Pop Conference “the best thing that’s ever happened to serious consideration of pop music.”
Contributors. David Brackett, Franklin Bruno, Daphne Carr, Henry Chalfant, Jeff Chang, Drew Daniel, Robert Fink, Holly George-Warren, Lavinia Greenlaw, Marybeth Hamilton, Jason King, Josh Kun, W. T. Lhamon, Jr., Greil Marcus, Michaelangelo Matos, Benjamin Melendez, Mark Anthony Neal, Ned Sublette, David Thomas, Steve Waksman, Eric Weisbard
This eclectic collection brought together by Weisbard (ed., This Is Pop) from several years of presentations at the Experience Music Project Pop Conference treats a wide variety of topics relating to popular music, including vaudeville, Jewish assimilation, African and Latin contributions to rhythms, Delta blues, punk rock, rap, and electronics. The contributors display subject expertise, and the writing is generally accessible and full of felicitous turns of phrase that belie the rather abstruse introduction. Evocative juxtapositions include philosopher Hannah Arendt with the Marx brothers and singer-songwriter Bobbie Gentry with cultural critic Camille Paglia. The explorations of specific, well-known figures such as Roberta Flack and of iconic songs resonate more strongly than discussions of more obscure subjects like the little-remembered collegiate rebel Buddy Holocaust or Cleveland television personality Ghoulardi. A consistent theme and integrated whole as well as smooth transitions are missing, but this reinforces popular music's many guises. Recommended for academic and music collections that include studies of popular musics of the 20th century and beyond.
Whittling on Dynamite The Difference Bert Williams Makes
1. The Bottom of the Flow
At the onset of recorded sound, Bert Williams and his partner George Walker billed themselves as "Two Real Coons," thus tossing up for grabs every term in the phrase but the word "two." Right at the beginning they put wink to the promise of recorded documentation. The reality they documented was not individual, not ethnic, but the power of performance protocols on every level of life and culture. Williams wore blackface and white lips, sometimes a ragged chicken suit, and always an enigmatic chortle. His darky business ripened the role's full vocabulary on stage and record. He somehow remained urbane while strutting the cake walk and insisting that "Dancing am de poultry ob motion." He stropped his razor, threw bones, drew cards, and never played by Hoyle. But to what end? Just the way martens prey on porcupines by treeing the spiky creatures, gutting their soft bellies from below, eating their antagonists from the inside out-just so, Williams and Walker held open season on conceptual coons. Isolating the concept on a stage with few props beyond minstrelsy's pancake and cackle, lore grading toward spectacle, Williams and Walker eviscerated whatever "coon" resided in the imagination of their diverse audiences. It was an important and constant gambit for American pop.
Bert Williams sketched strategies for talking back, and for surviving, too, to talk another day. A good example is "Borrow from Me" (1913), a performance from the middle of his career. Walker had died two years before. Their troupe disbanded and Williams's theatrical career had shrunk back again to his solo act in vaudeville. Thus the character he projected was a thoroughly consolidated precipitate of his performance experience. The scene he isolated in "Borrow from Me" used his characteristic confrontation with a manager-who might also be an officer, Pullman car customer, or a mother-in-law-proposing some outrageous scheme. You can hear him on the Archeophone disc as if he were still as alive as his strategy remains necessary.
Williams begins quietly, speaking: "I met a manager here on the streets yesterday. Said, 'I've got a great part for you to play and I am so sure you can get a minute right away-I want you to just listen and see now how sweet this sounds. I'm gonna take out in a day or so Uncle Tom's Cabin. You know it's a marvelous show. My cast is most complete, you know, but I thought I'd like to have you to play the bleedhound.' I said, 'well ...'" Here Williams slides slightly out of speech toward melody and rhythm but achieves only recitative for the rest of what starts to sound more like a verse. He goes on: "Bring me the Czar of Russia, just have him come on over here, 'n' blacken up to play Uncle Tom's part. From Mark, the lawyer, I 'spect we better have Mr. Othello-provided, that is, we can find a brother who doesn't come too dark. We have the Statue of Liberty to play Miss Eva and Rip Van Winkle playin' Legree. Now if you can bring me for the cast them folks I've asked you to bring, then oh boy, the bleedhound part's for me." It's less the issue of material than emotional reparations that slams into the singer's mind after hearing the manager's offer. During the phrase "'I said, 'well ...,'" emphasized above, one hears him recalling all the demeaning slights managers have offered men like Williams. And then, while he is still grinding out the phrase, inchoate tactics of response start occurring to him. That's the gestation of the song, not in the slights alone but in their cumulation and conversion. The song is about their interest compounding for him and for us. He is in their flow but he is a sluice, too, rechanneling the flow.
One may call Williams "the singer" here because that is his ultimate achievement. Nevertheless, he begins in shock and disarray, unable to sing, and that's where the first passage quoted above leaves him. His answer and confidence build gradually through the rest of the performance. It moves through recitative toward adequate answer, gathering into a tune, as Williams forms and repeats conundrums in the chorus that management can never compensate:
Bring me the stone that David slew Golia' with, And from the apple Adam ate bring me the core. Bring me a leaf from the very same tree That the dove carried a branch back to brother Noah; Bring me that lion that let Daniel live And the whale that swallowed Jonah in the sea. Bring me everything that I'm asking him to bring, 'N, oh boy then he can borrow from me.
Much of what is satisfying in "Borrow from Me" stems from the singer's realizing historical cognates for the manager's initial slight and compressing them into lyric. Giving gravity to the manager's offense and tuning it, "Borrow from Me" demonstrates the power of subaltern song.
Subaltern speech may be halting and self-defeating, as Gayatri Spivak has argued, but subaltern song is different. Although subaltern song does not achieve its aims immediately, it has momentum and cumulative flow. It survives speech and speakers. It gathers slights into memory. Crystallized in song, its echoes persist through repertoires down the eras, staying alive by cycling through all the modes of performance.
There are songs beyond those one breaks into when happy, sad, or in love. Williams's scheme demonstrates how song may ripen until it chants social feeling in a chorus. What's memorable in "Borrow from Me" are its quips. The Statue of Liberty playing Eva, the Czar doing a Tom turn, Rip with a whip: cultural inversions might contribute to fair play. But the statue will not condescend to Eva any more than history will deliver us Daniel's lion or Jonah's whale. So "Borrow from Me" recognizes it will not distribute just deserts. Instead, it rehearses history and our reckoning process from the viewpoint of the bleedhound. In playing with the stories that have slighted Bert Williams's character, "Borrow from Me" does not transcend its conditions. It works through them.
Focusing more on street corner face-offs than political abstraction, his songs and skits seem more insubordinate than resistant. Nevertheless, Williams's performances illustrate the principle argued in different registers by Kenneth Burke and John Lennon: culture is equipment for living, a chair to sit on, alertly. Practiced daily down the years, alertness grows judgmental-which is to say, political. Whether Williams encouraged resistance is a question too simple to answer. His characters explicitly dodged the draft and practiced noncooperation. Rather, the important question to ask about Williams, as about other generative American pop performers, is: How do their antics invert the dominant social signs they project? How might subaltern song organize liberatory values particularly when it wears blackface? Explicit nay-saying is less important here than the way much of the pop public understood that Williams's whole performance said No (steadfastly, if not in thunder), even while his apparent accommodation with the protocols of his time snuck his message past the censors.
What we have to analyze in the pioneering work of Bert Williams are the implications that his gestural style cues. As a realist hatching schemes in a racist and regressive era, Williams mainly seeks and tests strategies for survival. At issue in his work is whether such characters as his Brother Lowdown can reckon and change conditions in the close places where haves meet have-nots. That zone is Bert Williams's beat. That's where his slippery sureness shows that his public has been more likely to mull and complicate social generalizations than have either their governors or the mandarin intellectuals who colluded during Williams's decades to assemble theories of scientific racism. Indeed, can any governor speak more clearly than Williams's beleaguered character in "Nobody"? The mixed success and failure in Bert Williams's case indicate the possibilities of cultural engagement. His publics could see the warping of their lives in Williams's gestures. Through his songs, disparate cohorts of clerks and workers in many metropolitan regions consolidated themselves as one public and clarified their social conditions even unto chants that stuck in the American mind. The structured development of his songs both diagnosed what was happening to this public and suggested their means of coping.
I will circle back to the difference the songs made by reviewing the differences the songs register. Oppression and racism, withering wives, the First World War's draft and the meaning of Africa, managers and bosses: these frequent topics of black farce and song have been rendered sufficiently often that we can now focus on the creativity that fought to redefine them. Later in the century, Miles Davis distilled this point in his autobiography. Gil Evans pointed out to Davis that he ought to layer his own sound on top of compositions he was playing. Davis describes how Evans "would come up and whisper ... 'Miles, now don't let them play that music by themselves. You play something over them, put your sound in it, too.' Or, when I was playing with some white guys, 'Put your sound over theirs,' meaning their white sound and feeling. He said this meaning put my shit on top so that the black thing would be on top. Over, under, top, bottom: the history of American culture is the story of push coming to shove, of forces contending on an uneven field. Williams realized early that the consequence of power's play is unforeseen possibility-as when censoring black performance amplified its effect. This paradoxical American censorship involves the taboo against love plots in early black musicals. Aida Overton Walker (who performed with Williams in their musicals and was married to his partner, George Walker) repeatedly told interviewers about this prohibition. Jumbled plots in the Williams and Walker plays, Williams's stuttering movement during their cake walks, and certainly the lyrics of Williams's songs after In Dahomey (the first black musical to thrive on Broadway, 1903) all corroborate this gagging and the counter-creativity it spawned.
The taboo inevitably pushed black pop topics toward a politics of double entendre: say one thing, code another. This pressure extended the way censorship of drama in central London (following the Stage Licensing Act of 1737) had opened up burletta and farce as the modes in which working audiences understood themselves and ciphered their complaints. Blackface minstrelsy had come into being precisely as the American elaboration of London's illegitimate theater. And Bert Williams's use of blackface was his way of going explicit with the always-already coded "black" differences of gesture, rhythm, and dance. Blackface constituted Williams's red nose and pig's bladder. Blackface was an excessive signature that levered subtler gestures of low difference into consciousness.
Thus Bert Williams's songs clarified the hypocrisies of power and rallied those who realized nobody had done nothing for them, no time-as in his 1906 recording of "Nobody." This thoroughly cagey song, in which he described himself as whittling on dynamite, ultimately resolves its naive pretenses in its last two syllables, perhaps the most important couple of words he ever recorded:
Naah, ain't never done nothin' to no body. Naah, ain't never got nothin' from no body, no time. Ohhh, until I get somethin' from somebody, sometime, Nn-I'll never do nothin' for nobody, no time. I won't.
This last line competes to be the calmest, clearest creed in all pop music-much easier to follow than "All you need is love."
Bert Williams licensed himself by seeming not to be a revolutionary performer. There is no threshold instance in which his performances overturned either Western thought or song. Still, his acts sapped Atlantic creeds and affected their soundtrack. His straddle of speech and song pointed toward jazz poetry and hip-hop. His comic sensibility cleared ground for Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison, and Tom Lehrer. His abbreviated gestures evoked a public fondness that Charlie Chaplin also roused slightly later. Jelly Roll Morton and Duke Ellington both created sonic portraits of Bert Williams. Performers as different as Bob Hope, Johnny Cash, Nina Simone, Ry Cooder, Dave Van Ronk, and Perry Como have covered Bert Williams-all drawing from the core of Williams's repertoire something they could weave into their own disparate styles. Thus Williams contributed to several gradual changes. The ensemble of forces he joined breasted the extant cultural tides then celebrating the top of society. When Williams died in 1922 the tides were already starting to run the other way. Because of the traditions that Williams helped pump and regenerate, American music is still trying to resuscitate what he called the Jonah man tumbled deep at the bottom of the flow. As Jonah, Williams insisted his luck was bad, but he was instituting a pop reading of luck as fortune-meaning more than materiality. To be a Jonah man was to rehearse Old Testament suffering, its proverbs and angular humor. It was to join an ancient, ongoing understanding of how injustice works. This reiteration was a secret flow. The lyrics Williams tapped, and their way of coalescing a public, proved a tradition suppressed at the surface but tidal below. Tapping this flow replenished it.
2. No Means No
Note that the backtalk in Williams's recordings incited racially mixed publics. Williams was a class and style man as much as a race man. The constituents covering his songs and touting his humor perceived him in all those ways. The songs Bert Williams committed to cylinder and disc between 1901 and 1922 were among the earliest recorded black songs and performances. They count as landmarks. But their continuing importance depends on the way their revelatory complexity holds up now that we can hear its evidence. What proportions of black separation and interracial affiliation do they articulate? Does Williams's culmination of rag-time sensibility oppose or supplement the strategic authenticities manifest in jazz and blues? If the increasing recuperation of Williams's work attracts commentary corroborating that publics marked his songs both black and interracial, then that will have many implications for our still segregated histories of American pop and its impact on other arts. His case is one that throws those separated histories in doubt.
Williams's songs were way stations in cross-racial tides that began as eddies of performed gestures in American popular culture of the 1830s-before, below, and beside middle-class abolitionism. These anonymous affiliations started flowing from the mutualities of people dislocated in ports, working beside each other in mudsill labor, sharing blankets in flop-houses, repudiating together their bosses and pre-ordained fates. A common argot stirred their mutual renunciative gestures. Songs and blackface skits gave them volume and persistent momentum. This seventy-five-year history of mutual nay-saying reached one culmination in Bert Williams but he neither invented nor exhausted it. He is one of those volunteers, appearing above ground but seemingly nurtured from below, growing out of and documenting a musical rhizome that preceded, then mocked, and now augments our currently celebrated strains of blues. In its time, however, the tradition that gave us Bert Williams was hardly underground. Many would have said, did say, it was way too visible and public, too vulgar and transgressive-talking about phrenologist coons, dodging the draft, and giving wives away ("I'll lend you anything I've got on earth but my wife / And I'll make you a present of her"). In brief, it was like a lot of pop that counts: both in your face, thus legendary, and infra dig, thus suppressed and inadequately documented.
3. Fire Hydrant Theory
[T]he Negro is a very original being. While he lives and moves in the midst of a white civilization, everything that he touches is reinterpreted for his own use. ZORA NEALE HURSTON, "CHARACTERISTICS OF NEGRO EXPRESSION"
Excerpted from Listen Again Copyright © 2007 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted May 11, 2012