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the COUNTRY and the CITY
King Curtis and the Structure of Black Urbanity
Let us turn to another site in the West, some seventy years after Wilde's visit to Colorado. The time is September 1958; the place, a recording studio in Clovis, New Mexico. There is a cowboy and there is a dandy. One is Buddy Holly, singing a tune called "Reminiscing"; the other is "King" Curtis Ousley, tenor saxophonist from New York and inventor of yakety sax, joining Buddy for the recording session. A tight, foxy oompah tune written by Curtis (it was released under Holly's name only posthumously, in August of 1962), "Reminiscing" requires an almost electric crispness from the horn, and Curtis discovers a yakety way to deliver it with a remarkable and surprising freshness, very different from the honk-heavy repetitions of early rock and roll sax, and a style formalized by Curtis's lead horn on the Coasters' hit single "Yakety Yak" earlier in the same year. To say that Curtis dresses up Buddy's sound (as he did the sound of so many artists, including that of Aretha Franklin, the Shirelles, and Wilson Pickett) is an apt and historically exact metaphor to use to describe both the tune and the larger genesis of Curtis's horn.
What were King Curtis and Buddy Holly doing together in Clovis in 1958? Norman Perry's studio in Clovis was a fairly booming recording center in its own right (Gillett 1970, 96 ff.), although it is Holly who had invited Curtis to join him in New Mexico after they had worked together on a tour with the disc jockey Alan Freed in 1957 (see Norman 1996, 220; see also Goldrosen and Beecher 1986, 108). The act of imagination involved in bringing rock and roll together so completely is astonishing. Rock and roll history already shows its full hand of determinations, and out West to boot. Here two masters meet: the hiccuppy cowboy at one extreme, and, at the other, the dandy, the suave Manhattanite. What is most striking about King Curtis's horn on "Reminiscing" is in fact its urbanity. By contrast, Buddy's voice is, albeit in high manner, the voice of a hick, a yokel, a wailing swain. Country and western, rhythm and blues, cowboy and dandy, voice and horn all conjoin here. Lubbock, Texas, Buddy's birthplace, is across the border from Clovis and is high plains cowboy country. Buddy was himself a product of Texas swing, rockabilly, and bluegrass. He had learned banjo and mandolin as a youngster, as well as Hank Williams's style of yodeling, the precursor sound to his own vocal signature. Of course, like Southern Baptist religion (see Bloom 1992), country music is inconceivable without a central African-American influence, however repressed or obscured (see Malone 1985). Country reconstitutes its principal European sources--spirituals, English and Irish ballad and jig, and Central European polka--by strongly misreading them through an otherwise silent African-American presence (the gospel phrasing is where it is overt; see Jones 1963, 46-47), a presence that becomes obvious only after Texas swing starts using saxophones in the 1930s. No wonder the Grand Ole Opry radio broadcasts were as popular among black audiences as among white (see Guralnick 1979). Common labor of the oppressed, country music and rhythm and blues have always enjoyed, as the saying goes, the same gospel and Delta roots; Waylon Jennings was even a member of Buddy's band.
It is, of course, a staple of rock criticism to observe that rock and roll is the crossing of country and blues traditions (see, for example, Marcus 1975, 162 ff.), although now the larger and stricter historical logic behind the proposition--and behind rock and roll's relation to Romanticism--also comes into focus. Rock and roll is the crossing of cowboy and dandy. If you grew up on Westerns and Sherlock Holmes, your destiny was rock and roll. And if the outwardness and aggression of the cowboy had a historical counterpart, it was, not surprisingly in retrospect, the inwardness and languor of the dandy. Dandy foppishness relieves and controls what strength there is in cowboy panache. Each leavens the other. You can see both at play in the semiotics as well as in the music of rock and roll. Little Richard, Jimi Hendrix, Prince--all balance in a single style the cowboy's strength, the dandy's charm; the cowboy's rage, the dandy's melancholia. Even the British opposition between fashionable mods and tough rockers in the mid-Sixties recapitulates it. Chuck Berry shows how central and enabling the crossing is by using "country guitar lines adapted," in Robert Christgau's words, "to blues-style picking" (1972, 143). Like Elvis before him, Dylan, too, combines country with urban--a double lineage of Woody Guthrie and white folk on the one hand and Muddy Waters and the blues on the other--in an equally decisive instance of the crossing, especially after he decided to work with an electric band at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965. With their cowboy boots and dandy scarves, how like Wilde in Colorado Dylan and Elvis both are! Simply put, the blend of cowboy and dandy is suddenly unavoidable in rock and roll. Group monikers like Guns 'N Roses or the Sex Pistols only formalize what is already at play in the prehistory of a discourse so overdetermined as to produce both the Beatle boot and an extended meditation on the leopard-skin pillbox hat (see Dylan 1966).
But wait. Rock and roll as a crossing or combination of cowboy and dandy may be a sweet enough conjecture from the point of view of dominant or Romantic culture. But is it true from the point of view of African-American culture, especially if country and blues alike are forms of African-American music? By the same token, if country and blues are both part of blues tradition, then rock and roll as a crossing of cowboy and dandy is an altogether fair way to describe the manner in which it crosses two strands within blues tradition itself, country on the one hand and blues proper on the other. Then again, why is King Curtis in the role of dandy at Clovis next to Buddy the cowboy? Is some imperial misadventure afoot in such a formulation? Are cowboy and dandy even reasonable terms with which to describe African-American culture and its products? Here a whole new history emerges side by side with that of a dominant Romanticism and its vocabulary, and with it a whole new paradigm with which to organize rock and roll, its history, and its structure. The new paradigm, of course, is different from the Romantic one--I shall examine Romanticism in detail beginning in the next chapter--but it is also very similar to it. Like the Romantic paradigm, it is preoccupied with boundaries and with the way in which they get fashioned. Unlike the Romantic paradigm, however, its terms are drawn from a different kind of historical perspective. Let us follow King Curtis's route through the history of jazz to see just what it is before attending to the Romantic paradigm that is its analog or counterpart.
Curtis is responding to a crisis in jazz history that splits swing into two major strains after World War II. From its beginnings through swing, jazz was institutionally one thing, a form of public entertainment in which virtuosity was prized. After World War II, the legacy of swing divided this history into two new branches: bop or modern jazz, emphasizing the combo rather than the orchestra or big band; and rhythm and blues, which spirited away the big band sound and turned it, through many permutations, into rock and roll. Bop, of course, transformed jazz into a self-conscious art project that retained, God knows, its hard, swinging power, even though it encouraged--indeed, lionized--the emergence of the visionary soloist, allowing him "to fly," as Ira Gitler describes it, "with eighth-note constructions and extend [his] lines to include bursts of sixteenth and thirty-second notes" (1985, 5). The structure of bop chord changes added Euro-harmonics and modes to blues logic (see Russell 1960), and Charlie' Parker's influence as a soloist and a harmonic thinker became, except for Louis Armstrong's, unparalleled in the history of jazz. Like Dizzy Gillespie's beret, Parker's jesting use of an English accent on the bandstand or on outtakes in the studio underscores the irony with which European tropes and stances were appropriated by the boppers, even though such poses were also the logical extension of Armstrong's morning coat and spats, or Cab Calloway's tails and white tie. By the same token, of course, Parker's Western side is so decisive a factor in the elements out of which he is made that this native of Kansas who had woodshedded in the Ozarks (not for nothing was his nickname Yardbird) had turned down Duke Ellington's offer to join his orchestra to work instead with the rawer Kansas City bandleader Jay McShann. Indeed, bebop itself is, at least in a Romantic vocabulary, a colossal crossing of cowboy and dandy, even though its imaginative power inspired as much anxiety as it did influence.
Rhythm and blues and its rock and roll progeny, by contrast, restored jazz to the level of pop entertainment from which it eventually fell thanks to jazz modernism. Rhythm and blues is a term for which many folks have taken credit, but it designates something clear and simple: a jump sound that people danced to beginning in the 1940s that often featured rocking saxophone leads free from the calculus of bop. The initial model for this jump sound is Louis Jordan, bandleader, altoist, and singer, who is, retrospectively, the great alternative to Parker, and who is the Great Divide between swing and an emergent rhythm and blues or rock and roll that is the second of swing's two children. "For the masses of blacks," writes Nelson George, "after bebop's emergence, jazz was respected, but in times of leisure and relaxation they turned to Louis Jordan" (1988, 25). George cites Jordan's growing slew of hit records from 1943 to 1947 to document the shift (1988, 5; for a similar account by three producers, see Hammond 1977; Wexler 1993; and Gordy 1994; see also Shaw 1978, 61.ff.). By the early 1950s, however, Jordan's sales on Decca begin to decline, and Earl Bostic's on King begin to rise as he eventually records more hits than Jordan in the same r & b mode, inheriting and expanding Jordan's audience and codifying the alto style associated with Jordan's band.
Although to compare Parker to Jordan and Bostic is to compare a mortal god with a pair of sergeant-majors, it is still fair to say that Jordan and Bostic are the line in the sand between bop and rock and roll itself. While Jordan forms the Tympany Five in 1938, late in the swing era (the bop jams at Minton's in Harlem begin in the early 1940s), the model of the small group playing rocking ensemble music rather than featuring the clash of soloing Titans establishes for the generation after swing an alterative to the bop combo and an alternative to the bop use of the solo horn. A variety of alto players handled the soloing in Jordan's orchestra, among them Jordan himself, and it is Bostic who goes on to stabilize under a single signature the solo sax sound that Jordan and his band introduce. From this point of view, rock and roll is, belatedly, really a reaction to bebop, a swerve from its anxieties (Jones locates another, less truculent reaction in the hard bop of Horace Silver and Art Blakey in the second half of the 1950s, following Parker's death in 1955 [1963, 216-17]). While rhythm and blues may have misread bebop by overestimating its intellectualism (some rockers still share the misapprehension), it nonetheless provided a way to steer clear of Parker's influence, either as a buffer against it (as in the funkier, Southern tradition of the chicken-shack combo featuring tenor and B-3 organ), or as a knowing choice, as the young John Coltrane's appearance with Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson at the Apollo in 1947 may suggest. Indeed, after apprentice work as Dizzy's alto sideman, Coltrane thickens the plot of his own reaction to Parker by joining the funk organist Jimmy Smith for two weeks in 1955 and then the organist Shirley Scott for two months, completing his tour with Scott only one month before joining Miles Davis as a tenorman later in the same year. He even records some standards with Bostic himself at a session in Cincinnati in April of 1952.
What is the technology of the Jordan sound that Bostic formalizes? Like Parker, Jordan and Bostic play alto with no vibrato, the sign of a common starting point as revisions of the same precursor, swing tenorman Lester Young (on Parker and vibrato, see Crouch 1983, 258), and of their different swerves from him. With Parker, the swerve is rhetorical and percussive alike; with Jordan and Bostic, however, the swerve is almost altogether percussive and the rhetoric a sparse version of the swing vocabulary they share with Parker. Like a blues shouter rather than a jazz singer, the tone and accent of Jordan's or Bostic's horn are notable more for their rhythmic timing than for their lyrical elaboration, reinventing phrasing in as epochal a reassignment as bop but with a very different kind of influence behind--and before--it. Jordan's vocal strategy, too, is knowingly bound, presaging James Brown and Sly Stone in the refusal of an easy liquidity. If Parker drives saxophone forward, beyond Lester Young, then Jordan and Bostic take it back within the Lester Young tradition but curtail and sharpen it, not unlike those honkdown saxophonists who predated or resisted the discipleship to Parker and who prefigure Curtis himself, Illinois Jacquet in particular. Even more than Jordan, Bostic is a genuine crossover figure who spans the hyperbolic vibrato of swing saxophone and the shocking brashness of the rock and roll instrument that emerges out of it, sometimes actually narrating the movement from one mode to the other over the course of a single tune, as he does on "What, No Pearls?," an original composition in which vibrato is isolated and converted into a yelping growl.
King Curtis perfects the Jordan-Bostic line--he doubtless knew Bostic in New York once he had settled there as a young session aspirant in the early 1950s--and shows how rock and roll can take the logic that invented jazz itself another step further. Long before his death in 1971, when he was fatally stabbed outside his home in Manhattan, Curtis had already transformed saxophone into a true rock and roll instrument because he had helped to solve the crisis of bop influence in jazz. As a youngster, he had toured with Lionel Hampton's orchestra, a gig thick with influences (Jacquet had played with Hampton, as had Bostic), and an atmosphere in which he came to recall jazz's own earlier state. Curtis puts this mode of recollection to work at the very center of his own sound. The result is not only still durable; it remains the paradigm for rock and roll saxophone even today, as the example of David Sanborn and other saxophonists more and more popular since the late 1970s makes plain (on Curtis's customary neglect, see Wexler 1993, 249).
The secret of Curtis's sound derives, ironically, from its use of country, and country and western, materials. Its urbanity is a paradoxical effect of its exploitation of rural styles, its suave city sound begotten, as it turns out, in Texas. King Curtis was originally from Fort Worth, and his yakety horn is an audacious transformation of what is customarily called Texas tenor, a broad, open sound like Jacquet's, a sound more stomping than the beboppers' despite their own profound bluesiness, and the jazz counterpart to the big, open stance of the cowboy himself. The dandy from New York has a country background and his horn a Texas pedigree. Buddy Holly and King Curtis are both from Texas, and the country influences central to Holly are central, too, in King Curtis's different use of them. Searching for an escape from bop, Curtis makes as radical a swerve from Parker as Coltrane does, although even the yakety style is itself a version of one of Parker's mannerisms that Sonny Rollins once called "pecking" (Davis 1989, 79). The direction is the style of the banjo, fiddle, and picking guitar--bluegrass styles adapted to horn usage. Fiddle and banjo had been widely used by African-American musicians before the Civil War, while in jazz bands in the twentieth century, banjo had been superseded by guitar by the late 1920s (Barlow 1989, 29-30). Fiddle and banjo alike were part of early Dixieland instrumentation, but both instruments were left largely behind to enjoy their presumably separate destiny in country music.
Curtis's stroke of insight is astonishing, and valued far less than it should be. If Parker becomes a dandy--learned, urban--to lift swing into a world of advanced harmonics that he can use jazz logic to transform, then Curtis becomes a cowboy--a hick, a stomping Texan all over again--to counter Parker's own urbanity and the overwhelming power of its influence upon jazz phrasing and changes. The country mode also allows Curtis to push the horn beyond Jordan's and Bostic's example, too, into a simpler, sharper, and more pointed percussive relation to a rocking rhythm section. It thereby opens up a new lyrical space for an otherwise merely rhythmic or percussive horn (there is also a touch of classical oboe tone that eases the percussive and the country alike). While on the one hand Curtis's horn is jagged, on the other it is so sweet, so vocal, and sometimes so lyrical--"Soul Serenade" (1964) is the best example--that its project may seem self-divided. This self-division, however, is a rock and roll strategy born of jazz necessity. Unlike Junior Walker, his nearest contemporary, Curtis doesn't just sweeten up Texas tenor; he also gives it a shear edge beyond Walker's dismissive growls. He does so by crossing the size of Texas tenor tone with the bite and timbre of Jordan's or Bostic's alto. In the process of resolving the influence of Texas tenor, he also resolves the influence of rhythm and blues alto, using one to deflect the other. Both nonbop descendants of swing saxophone, Curtis breeds them to move beyond bop and rhythm and blues alike, and as a means of attuning his own horn to the brassier country earliness he has in mind.
The stakes here are high, and they extend beyond jazz history proper. The (re)turn to country materials is not just an example of Curtis's swerve from bop. It is also an example of an imaginative strategy in black culture that blues tradition registers with particular clarity and that jazz and rock and roll each register in specific ways. Like Romantic imagination, it is, of course, a mode of crossing, although it is a crossing not of cowboy and dandy, East and West, but of city and country, North and South. Unlike the structure of Romantic imagination, it derives from a structure at work in the history of African-American culture, the difference between country and city engendered by the great migrations from South to North that move into high gear during World War I, when the need for industrial labor in a North deprived of its steady flow of European immigrants combines with the mechanization of cotton picking in the South and the deterioration of race relations there to attract Southern blacks to urban centers in ever increasing numbers. In 1900, 90 percent of all African Americans lived in the South (Davis 1991, 7); in 1940, the figure was 77 percent, and, by 1970, it was only half (Lemann 1991, 6; see also Douglas 1995, 312 ff.). And while the large migrations after World War II from the Southwest to the cities of California may not obey the literal geography of South and North, they also recapitulate the paradigm, since the mythos attending them is likewise informed not only by the opposition between bondage and freedom but by the urban disappointments that the West, too, can provide black Americans.
The migrations to the cities has the double and unsettling effect of disillusion in the promise of the North and a changed, newly self-conscious relation to the rural South, a relation possible only through the memory and imagination that estrangement from it ironically provides. Like black settlements in the West after the Civil War (see Katz 1971), the migrations North evacuate a typology even as they fulfill it. Moving North means nothing at all, except the clarification of a grim perspective. The structure of the geography, however, presents opportunities that the geography itself does not. It prompts a fresh cultural stance based on the new tie of association between North and South, a stance based on the structure of the relation or ambivalence between the two rather than on its resolution, and one that better estimates history than the typological stance of suffering and deliverance that experience has shown to be empty. The solution to the anxieties that accompany it is the imagination or invention of a new kind of urbanity, often by importing country styles to city modes, a way of suspending rather than reconciling the split or opposition between them. Dialectical or crossing, black urbanity is a Southern mode of Northerliness, a Northern mode of Southerliness, a kind of trick played at the crossroads that fends off the tension produced by being in an otherwise groundless situation. Banjo and fiddle styles are transferred to the urbanity of the saxophone, while saxophone welcomes its country cousins the banjo and the fiddle.
The invention and durability of a black urbanity based upon country styles is an achievement central to black imagination and to American imagination at large. The emergence of jazz in the 1920s is its first signature, and King Curtis's achievement in the 1950s is representative of black urbanity in a specifically rock and roll mode. To use the signifying title of a LaVern Baker tune upon which King Curtis also appeared, black urbanity produces a style of identity that exchanges Jim Crow for "Jim Dandy" (1956) and that is part of a tradition that produced band names like Zack White's Chocolate Beau Brummells in the mid-1920s, or the Chocolate Dandies in the late 1920s, a band more often known as McKinney's Cotton Pickers. The cowboy and the dandy play their dialectical game in black culture, too, although they do so under the name of country and city. Curtis's use of country, for example, and his allegiance to the pop mode of rhythm and blues make him, like Jordan or Bostic before him, the cowboy next to Parker's dandy, the man of the people rather than the urban artist. But, of course, Parker himself is the American roughneck cowboy--the Kansas City stomper--next to the urban Euro-harmonics that are, like Henry James's or Willa Cather's English and French influences, his own dandy side as an American artist. Next to Buddy Holly, however, Curtis is not a cowboy, but is himself a dandy. Then again, Buddy, too, has crossed over, and more than once: he overcomes the influence of Hank Williams by hearing the blues, and he overcomes the influence of the blues by hearing Dean Martin (see Tosches 1992). Clovis presents us with a paradigm for rock and roll in 1958 that actually allows Curtis and Buddy each to play both roles, cowboy and dandy, at once, to control both perspectives by exploiting the structure of black urbanity that engenders rock and roll as a form, and whose earlier manifestation as jazz now takes a heightened turn. If Armstrong in the 1920s brings the country to the city, then postwar blues and rhythm and blues bring the city back to the country--the North, as it were, back to the South--in an even more self-conscious exercise of urban imagination upon country materials. By virtue of the comparisons that time itself provides, Armstrong's own journey from the country to the city is now more than ever the start of an endless dialectic between the two poles, not simply a passage from the one to the other.
As an ideological operation, of course, black urbanity also redacts the customary racial positioning of black in relation to white (see, for example, Fanon 1952) by casting white as brutish and black as civilized. At Clovis, with Curtis as dandy and Buddy as cowboy, black culture is no longer a preserve of savage energy managed, as in the Beatnik version, by a colonialist bohemia (see, for example, Mailer 1957; Kerouac 1958, 1959). No goad for drawing out raw, spontaneous energy in otherwise docile white folks, here black culture is instead the very sign of the city, of culture, while white culture is the sign of nature and lack of civilized control. By the same token, however, Clovis is parabolic because it doesn't simply reverse the customary roles; it also rearticulates the way in which structure itself may be said to function. Let us glance at how country and city structure black American culture and how they can raise questions about cultural signification in the process--before turning to the nature of black urbanity as a compensatory mode of imagination and as a model for the emergence of rock and roll.
The course of blues tradition registers the history of the migrations with extraordinary clarity and even shows how major population shifts parallel key movements in the history of music. The period between 1900 and 1930 that changed the structure of the American census also changed the texture of American culture (Katznelson 1973, 310); it frames the new hegemony of blues music in an urban mode--jazz--that crystallizes with the conversion of country blues into classic blues. When the New Orleans native Louis Armstrong joined the Fletcher Henderson orchestra in 1924, "he taught New York," in Gary Giddins's words, "to swing" (1988, 81). The period between the two world wars saw the birth of a black metropolis in Chicago (see Drake and Cayton 1945) and the emergence of swing in Kansas City (for an account, see Russell 1971). Between 1940 and 1970, the population profile changed drastically again, and once again the "paradigm shift," as Nicholas Lemann calls the uneasiness of country and city (1991, 40), was reflected on the stages of Chicago's own clubs: "Musically," writes Lemann, "the South Side of Chicago was ruled by the dapper, mustachioed, pomaded Muddy Waters, the West Side by the raw, overwhelming, enormous Howlin' Wolf" (83), both sons of the Delta and between them structuring Chicago cultural life as a play between electric blues versions of dandy and cowboy.
The stance of a rugged, cowboy dandyism, the new urbanity leads, of course, to the creation of African-American show business (Morgan and Barlow 1992) and rewrites a prehistory in minstrelsy that jazz manner and costume have already evoked (see also Stearns and Stearns 1968). Black urbanity reappropriates and reimagines the caricatured rivalry between "plantation" and "dandy" blacks as depicted in white minstrel shows as early as the 1820s (Southern 1971, 89) and opens an entire field of mythographic construction to the needs of reinvention (for Stephen Foster's response beginning in the 1840s, see Emerson 1995). Indeed, later nineteenth-century black minstrelsy and black independent theater (see Johnson 1930) feature a tradition of ironic performance whose mimicries, parodies, and mockeries of Romantic culture also raise central questions about the very status of familiar tropes within our historical materials themselves, especially when we ask whether such Romantic mythologies as cowboy and dandy apply to a historiography of the oppressed, and what it means to say that country and city are versions of cowboy and dandy when Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters are playing (see, for example, Bhabha 1994). One is reminded of Henry Louis Gates, Jr.'s, notion that black culture disrupts the very logic of normative signification by using it in a new way (1988, 47 ff.).
To raise the question of whether it is fair to assign to African-American culture a position of revising Romantic culture is, of course, also to raise the opposite question: whether it is fair to read African-American culture through the tropes of Romanticism. These are the signature preoccupations of W. E. B. Du Bois, and they structure both the questions he asks and the ways in which he asks them. Du Bois's paradigmatic discovery of the country in The Souls of Black Folk (1903) is an ironic function of his urbanity as both a Northerner and an intellectual. Like the Latin phrases used to praise Africa in his speeches, the Romantic invocations of the rural folk here serve to heighten the contrasts out of which the book's extraordinary textures are made, chief among them a system of double epigraphs for each chapter that juxtaposes musical notations from black spirituals and texts from Romantic or late-Romantic literature. Even Du Bois's invention of a pan-African identity over the later course of his career is the durable sign of his Euromodernism, based as it is on both his training in German philosophy and his estrangement from it.
But like the paradox of country and city, Du Bois's paradoxes are structures of oppression that he converts into salutary new structures of imaginative power. The "double-consciousness" that is the notorious problem--"this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others" (1903, 5)--becomes the ground for its own solution. "What was initially felt to be a curse," as Gilroy describes it, "gets repossessed" (1993, III). There is, alas, no "true self-consciousness" in the first place, only "double-consciousness" from the start; no primary self, only a social self made up of reflection. Like Romanticism--we shall see this at length later on--it exposes the split subjectivity of master and slave alike (see Habermas 1985; see also Zizek 1989). Mastery is subdued, to use the sound-recording metaphor, by remastering, and the ego itself is subdued into ecstasy. If the historical "humiliation" that has produced the situation is "studied," as a punning Du Bois puts it (174), then the yield is this new kind of learning.
Du Bois's paradoxical preoccupations structure the history of African-American studies (see Baker 1984) and the ideological split between Eurocentrism and Afrocentrism that presumably divides it despite the obvious complementarity of the two approaches. Indeed, Du Bois's early criticisms of Booker T. Washington include Washington's inability to see paradox as constitutive in historical process. Paradox, however, is also central, as it were, to Washington himself, whose autobiography is structured from its very beginning by a crossing that gives it its logic and its force as it moves toward a remarkable and uncanny conclusion. "Born near a cross-roads post-office" as a slave (1901, 1), Washington the elderly gentleman discovers an edition of Frederick Douglass's autobiography in the library of a steamship at book's close (288). Washington's achievement ironically narrates the return to a precursor. Nor is the return immediate; the earlier comes in the form of a text. The primary and the secondary are functions of one another. The latecomer is not burdened by the pioneer, nor the pioneer by the latecomer. The relation itself is the enabling invention, not a choice between one or the other of the alternatives it presents. Washington, too, is paradigmatic. The interdependence of past and present is the interdependence of country and city in another key, and it renders the proverbial debate about country and city, urban and folk in black culture and black studies a structural inevitability rather than a debate about real choices.
Or consider Langston Hughes's poem "Aesthete in Harlem" (1930). Hughes gives us a title that already has us wondering whether an impulse to read its signifiers as a juxtaposition is justified, and whether the ambiguity says as much about the reader as it does about the text. Does the poem go on, then, to banish the aesthetic, or does it reinvent it? Are "aesthete" and "Harlem" at odds, or are they put into relation in a new way? It is not, after all, until the poet comes to "this near street" (6)--in Harlem, a metonym, presumably--that he finds the "life" (7) that he cannot find in "places gentler speaking" (5). Country and city seem to reappear in the midst of the city itself as the difference between uptown and downtown. But this is an easy reading of the poem, and one that it does not sustain. A newer, rawer sense of life is already available to the poet here precisely because it "step[s]" on his "feet" (7). The play on words--"feet" are also poetic figures--prompts the recognition that the sanctification of the quotidian is an achievement in the very forms it appears to spurn. The poem cannot sustain either of its terms without the other. Whichever sense we give the poem requires that we exile--hence include, however negatively or silently--its rejoinder. The poem's structure is really the rotation of possibilities in an endless crossing back and forth. Like the opposition of cowboy and dandy, the opposition of country and city, funky and falutin', constantly turns inside out, each pole a function or a foil of the other.
This doubleness or interdependence of country and city is perhaps most familiar in the history of African-American fiction. The African-American novel as a rule brings to bear any series of Eurocentric techniques upon black mythoi and experience, and simultaneously takes the results straightforwardly and ironically. Much as King Curtis combines country and city, so Zora Neale Hurston, for example, reflects on country materials in Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) with an anthropologist's zeal and the resources of American modernism. The power of Richard Wright's Native Son (1940) derives in no small measure from its ironic reimagination of black experience through the tradition of naturalism from Zola to Dreiser, a way of really driving the nature of Bigger's predicament home by showing it to be at bottom the function of an aesthetic inevitability with which the political is, outrageously enough, actually identical. Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man (1950) is not only an equivalent reimagination of black experience through the techniques of Kafkan modernism. It is also a reimagination of the way Wright himself reveals the identity of the aesthetic and the existential, the formal and the political. In all three cases, the difference between country and city, life and literature, reality and myth is simultaneously maintained and dismantled. This tendency abides, of course, in Alice Walker and Toni Morrison, although Ishmael Reed takes the strategy much further by breaking down exponential versions of these oppositions, whether between the rival discursive regimes of cowboy and dandy, Loop Garoo and Hoodoo Too, in Yellow Back Radio BrokeDown (1969), or between fixity and crossover as the rival interpretative modes of Aton and Jes Grew in Mumbo Jumbo (1972). Even James Baldwin's stark oppositions of country and city, cowboy and dandy, black and white in Another Country (1962) turn out to be vengefully reciprocal. The presumable purity of white is, of course, the function of comparison, too.
But whatever black urbanity's undecidable relation to Romanticism--a revision of it or an entirely separate growth--it redoubles Romanticism in structure and dynamic. Black urbanity is an empowering imaginative invention that controls both perspectives, the country and the city, at once and, like Romantic imagination, takes its power from a crossing or contamination of perspectives that lends each perspective its effect. Like Romanticism, it, too, is a mode of imaginative compensation that bestows a leverage in power upon the fortunate latecomer by providing an instrument of memorial mastery or control of the past from a combination of two otherwise powerless points of view. The structure of black urbanity is one of deferred action, to use Freud's term (1918, 17:45), a structure designed to reestimate the past from the point of view of later experience and, in the process, to gain a new and empowering perspective over historical materials. It is a mode of "re-memory" or "re-membering," as Toni Morrison's narrator calls it in Beloved (1987, passim), the production of "new pictures" (95) to "beat ... back the past" (73), a way to "change the leaving" (223), making "coming ... the reverse route of going" (263). Curtis's tune is not called "Reminiscing" for nothing. The mastery of memory reevaluates the South and the past by seeing, after the fact and from the point of view of the North and the future, what value there was in country experience as distinct from its overwhelming miseries and the endless shadows they cast. The result is an endorsement of neither North nor South, but the discovery of double or crossing perspective itself. "[T]here is the world of comparisons," writes Alice Walker, "between town and country," the "double vision" of the black artist (1970, 18, 19). When Albert Murray writes of the sweetness of the South--a "cozy and cuddly time Down South all over the world" (1971, 27)--it is as a place in the mind, not, finally, as a real territory, bell hooks even splits her narrator between two pronouns--"I" and "she"--in a memoir recalling her Southern girlhood (1996). Simultaneous country and city vision suspends the calamitous force of Southern historical experience while also preserving the cultural forms that emerged from it, especially blues tradition and an originary sense of community that grew imperiled in the moves North.
The South signifies what the historian Pierre Nora calls a lieu de memoire, or site of memory, the term favored to describe the mechanism of black urbanity by Genevieve Fabre and Robert O'Meally in their collection History and Memory in African-American Culture (1994). Black urbanity structures the way in which a site of memory may, in Melvin Dixon's words, "contribute to the process of cultural recovery" (1994, 19) by "deconstructing," as the editors put it, "a subversive lieu de memoire and now constructing another" to replace it (1994, 12). Black urbanity at one and the same time cancels and preserves history, taking advantage of the temporality that resituates the South from the belated point of view of the North. In an example of what Nora calls the "reciprocal overdetermination" of "memory and history" that creates lieux de memoire (1994, 295), Hurston, for example, "define[s] ... a rural folk," as Hazel Carby describes it, by "measur[ing] them and their cultural forms against an urban, mass culture." Indeed, "[t]he creation of a discourse of the 'folk' as a rural people in Hurston's work in the twenties and thirties displaces the migration of black people to cities" (1994, 31). Like a collective version of Freud's primal scene (1918, 17:39), the lieu de memoire is a retroactively generated origin, an earlier place that comes into being as a function of the distance that estranges you from it. Hence its liberating as well as symptomological possibilities. "Tradition," writes Nora, "is memory that has become historically aware of itself" (1992, ix).
The opposition between country and city is also equivalent to the crucial opposition in black culture between sacred and secular, another opposition that black urbanity topples by crossing its poles. Of the terms and images available to describe the movement from South to North historically, the biblical ones are, of course, most frequently used, even though--or perhaps because--"the sacred world," as Lawrence Levine puts it, was "never again to occupy the central position of the antebellum years" (1977, 191). Citing Bercovitch (1978), Baker notes the extent to which biblical typology informs African-American as well as colonial experience (1984, 20-21), especially, so the remarkable implication goes, as a means of overcoming the putatively Greek mythos of the plantation tradition (130). Typology and geography can, however, also lead to confusion and to a recognition of the extraordinary pliability of typological tradition. Country and city do not, alas, apply to the structure of East and West in American Romanticism. Here two interpretations of biblical protocol vie for priority as to whose version of secular correspondence is correct. In American Romanticism and its typological tradition, it is the West, the country, that is free, and the East, the city, that is bondage. In African-American culture, it is the South, the country, that is bondage, and the North, the city, that is free. Here Frederick Douglass's famous narrative of 1845 prefigures our entire paradigm, with innocence and knowledge taking the roles of country and city under the cloak of typology. The fall from the primacy of the Edenic rural South into the history embodied by the cities is the fall from a plenitude that never existed in the first place. Douglass's rhetoric contests the very myth of origins that it presumably (re)presents, "a symbolically inverted account," as Baker puts it, "of the Fall of Man" (1984, 42; see also Gates 1978). Douglass's "fall" into writing actually reverses the categorical structures of normative representation because it reorganizes the customary relationship between nature and culture or country and city--by crossing or exchanging their qualities.
It is, of course, rock and roll's marriage of gospel and blues, especially gospel singing over blues rhythms, that best represents its urbane solution to the differences that country and city characteristically represent. Hence another crossing, and one that also accounts for what we think of as an originary rock and roll sound. Rock and roll is gospel, or religious, vocal phrasing over blues, or secular, rhythm sections, a fusion--and, simultaneously, an undoing--of the opposition between sacred and secular, country and city, nature and culture, a way of being in both places at the same time. Hence, too, the revisionary use of the big sound of the Hammond B-3 organ (together with tenor saxophone and drums) in chickenshack roadhouses in the religious South, a fine swerve from church organ and an emblem for the new climate that blends swing or jazz protocols with sacred ones.
Ray Charles is a more familiar and decisive figure than King Curtis himself, and his sound is the fullest measure of the success of crossing gospel voice and blues rhythms, a crossing structurally equivalent to the crossing of country and blues (Charles's country mode now looks more logical, too). "Ray broke down the division between pulpit and bandstand," writes George (1988, 70); Murray argues that such secularization goes at least as far back as Armstrong (1976, 30 ff). Like Curtis's retrograde synthesis of two presumably opposed modes or vocabularies, Charles's achievement is based squarely on the use of gospel or country phrasing over swing or city time. It is also an example of how he overcomes Nat Cole's enabling jazz influence by flight to another mode, much as Curtis overcomes Parker's by a similar strategy. Charles's vocal genius also stages the breakdown of another critical opposition that will become more and more central to us as rock and roll history progresses, the difference between voice and instrument. Like the difference between secular and sacred, gospel and blues, cowboy and dandy, this customary difference, too, gets crossed or undone by the fact that Charles's voice, like Armstrong's, is itself an instrument of surpassing technique. It also suggests the active strategy of rock and roll imagination to be the calculated confusion of any series of familiar oppositions, usually or particularly musical ones, and including, as we shall see, epistemological ones extraordinarily similar to those at work in Romanticism.
The logic of black urbanity is even plain in the invention of the backbeat, another example of how rock and roll takes black urbanity a step further than jazz. The new rock and roll or funk rhythms that emerge in the 1950s enact a dynamic of influence that joins not just city and country or North and South but also North America and Latin, specifically Caribbean, America. Connie Kay, jazz and session drummer, tells the story of a rock and roll recording date that required him, when the piano player didn't show, to add a second beat on the bass drum (Giddins 1995). The result: the (d)evolution of the swing beat into the funk beat. But how? The extra beat that was added to the swing beat by the bass drum was in fact the sound of conga. Afro-Cuban in origin, conga had often been used with bop swing rhythms by Dizzy Gillespie. Now, however, bop's use of conga is transformed by rock and roll. Rock and roll incorporates conga more drastically, more decisively into the rhythm by having the bass drum play the conga's quarter notes. This is the other side of the bass drum's mimicry of Sousa, the addition of the Afro-Cuban double beat to a swing bottom; it brings cultural compensation full circle and makes the backbeat a genuinely cosmopolitan achievement, far more than bop's colonization of conga under the sign of the swinging ride cymbal. Jazz and session drummer Panama Francis observes that the bass drum keeps time in swing but not in bop, where the ride cymbal predominates as a metric device (Deffaa 1989, 175 ff.). In rock and roll, however, the bass drum regains its central position, although now with a difference in accent, the likely result of incorporating the sound of the conga into the trap set and its transistorization of the marching band. The rhythm section on the Beatles' "Nowhere Man" (1966a) well exemplifies Francis's point: McCartney's bass both walks and accents the second beat of the 2/4 time (Ringo accents on the bass drum along with Paul only on the second beat, too), simultaneously preserving a swing bottom while also overthrowing it in favor of a backbeat stress.
Black urbanity's ironic strength is what makes rock and roll mechanisms so supple and what allows rock and roll to take blues tradition into a kind of overdrive. Whether country and city, sacred and secular, North and South, or voice and instrument, the very crossing of the opposition also undoes or unties it. In Charles's case, vocal technique actually exchanges the very terms of the opposition as it exercises them. This crossing dynamic is the key to black culture's simultaneous cancellation and preservation of dominant ideological modes and the mechanism that rock and roll takes particular advantage of as an imaginative strategy. Jones even remarks that the emergence of rhythm and blues is the later symbol of the same "urban tradition" that Armstrong originally represents (1963, 155 ff.). If jazz comes to the city from the country, then rock and roll comes back to the country from an experience of the city. It crosses back again. The words of "I Shall Be Released" apply to city and country, cowboy and dandy alike: "I see the light come shining / From the West down to the East" (1968). Rock and roll's very belatedness--its coming after jazz, especially after bop--is what gives it its earliness. If jazz brought the South to the North, now rock and roll brings the North back to the South, after the fact. To cross to the country from the city, from the West back to the East, is, in a manner of speaking, to dandify the cowboy, to acknowledge influence, to orchestrate an irony.
Table of Contents
1. The Country and the City
2. Wilde West
3. Influence and Originality in the Blues tradition
4. The Psychedelic Sublime
5. "I Second that Emotion"
6. Willa Cather and the Art of the "Cross Stitch"
7. Miles Apart?
8. Virginia Woolf's Crosswriting
9. The Body English
A Coda on Canonicity and Mythology