Lying up a Nation: Race and Black Music / Edition 2 available in Hardcover
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- University of Chicago Press
What is black music? For some it is a unique expression of the African-American experience, its soulful vocals and stirring rhythms forged in the fires of black resistance in response to centuries of oppression. But as Ronald Radano argues in this bracing work, the whole idea of black music has a much longer and more complicated history-one that speaks as much of musical and racial integration as it does of separation.
About the Author
Ronald Radano is a professor of music at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is the author of New Musical Figurations: Anthony Braxton's Cultural Critique and coeditor of Music and the Racial Imagination, both published by the University of Chicago Press.
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Lying up a Nation
Race and Black Music
By Ronald Radano
The University of Chicago Press
Copyright © 2003 The University Of Chicago
All right reserved.
Telling Stories, Telling Lies Revisionist Listening and the Writing of Music History
Black Resonances I begin with the famous musical moment near the opening of Ralph Ellison's novel, Invisible Man. It is a familiar passage in the history of American racial thought, one so excessively labored that to dally here risks the misstep of playing to the common order. Even so, the text invites reflection once more, vividly depicting as it does the strangely conspicuous obscurity of "black music" in America. At this particular point, Ellison's music-loving narrator makes a startling revelation: he locates jazz at the site of its own erasure. In the loud clamor of black music, represented here in Louis Armstrong's recording of "Black and Blue," the narrator describes the uncanny experience of hearing white society's deafness to black being. What he calls, in a strategically mixed metaphor, the "beam of lyrical sound" that shines forth from Armstrong's horn ultimately loses its radiance in the public sphere and fades into the darkness of absence. Ellison enhances this association between racial invisibility and a paradoxically sited, yet silent, black sound by relying on jazz-based figures and themes. Comparing absence to the sensibility of swing, Ellison, a former jazz trumpeter, observes this through his protagonist:
Perhaps I like Louis Armstrong because he's made poetry out of being invisible. I think it must be because he's unaware that he is invisible. And my own grasp of invisibility aids me to understand his music.... Invisibility, let me explain, gives one a slightly different sense of time, you're never quite on the beat. Sometimes you're ahead and sometimes behind. Instead of the swift and imperceptible flowing of time, you are aware of its nodes, those points where time stands still or from which it leaps ahead. And you slip into the breaks and look around. That's what you hear vaguely in Louis' music.
Now what a strange notion: to trace toneful elegance from social absence! And yet Ellison does so neither to deny black musical significance nor to elevate it to some racially autonomous status. This "poetry out of being invisible" betrays special insight into the peculiarly American quality of "black experience," just as it acknowledges the dependency of that experience on the historically contingent circumstances of race. To be sure, Ellison is privy to the profound ironies of racial contest and engagement that form the matrix of the American social art of black music. What sets him apart from lesser critics is the way he avoids square renderings of time and culture, knowing full well what you miss when you conform to the literal rhythms of racial assumption. Ellison plays not just with the antagonisms of race but with the dynamic ambiguities that underlie the very distinction between "black" and "white" as well. His aim is not to center blackness but, rather, to do something far more subversive. He wants to claim America by revealing a conspicuously marginal and invisible black music as the nation's voice.
What do we hear when America sings? What sounds from the disembodied voice of a nation so traumatized and confused by its own racial constitution? What might the music tell us that we fail to discern in other artifacts of culture? For Ellison, black music betrays the blurred racial realities that so many Americans, asleep in the nightmare of the color line, refuse to acknowledge. In the same way, in this book, I propose strategies of listening into the body of black music, to hear and feel its breath-the very materiality of sounding the nation. For if Ellison is correct, we can locate in black music the silenced narratives of the social, those "unspeakable things unspoken," as Toni Morrison calls them, which resonate as musico-discursive eruptions inextricably linking black and white. Rather than coalescing as a singular, audible totality, these eruptions have constructed the racial play of sights and sounds through which we can retrospectively map a new history of black music and reconsider the trajectory of American music at large. Such attentive listening means something more than hearing "the sound itself," a concept derived from a positivist musicology that presumes art to exceed the social meanings that inevitably contain it. We need to move beyond these modern fantasies of autonomous form that have overtaken black musical studies, not to deny artistic value but in order to situate the making of art forms within the broader dimensions of culture. Black music, like all Western musical practices, is patently intermusical as it is intermediated and, finally, interracial. To claim otherwise, whether to celebrate the "structural coherence" of a masterful improvisation or to advance an essential connection to the temporal recesses of Africa, is only to foreground one of music's many social texts. Neither pure lyric nor unadulterated racial sound, the voice of black music may best be likened to a "soundtext," to a sonic palimpsest that accumulates tales on those already written. A multivocal, multitextual offering, black music communicates in the end many "musics," which, in their variety, ironically give voice to a racial nation.
Working against the consensus positions of American musical historiography, then, I propose in no uncertain terms to challenge, in this book, those strategies of containment that uphold the racial binaries informing the interpretation of black music. It goes against the grain of a pervasive, yet remarkably underanalyzed assumption that correlates an enduring black musical presence with the myth of a consistent and stable socio-racial position of "blackness." Put to challenge, in particular, is the view, still common to our time and culture, of an immutable black musical essence that survives apart from the contingencies of social and cultural change. Such a seemingly commonsense opinion must either depend on a musical universalism in black form (somehow aligned with as it extends from European idealism) or presume a vital, unrelenting force that, despite claims honoring culture over nature, betrays racialist sentiments.
In registering this challenge, my aim is not, of course, to unseat the significance and integrity of black music. The commitment to a viable essence of black music that still occupies the popular imagination remains an important ideological component of national memory that emerges historically as one of the many coherence systems binding people musically. Rather than a falsity it suggests what Roland Barthes called "myth": the stories we tell in giving texture and meaning in the making of our worlds. The myth of essence represents a crucial mode of musical coherence that reflects the constituting role of sound in the formation of racial subjects. Yet continuing to uphold uncritically the myth of black music as a stable form or even as a "changing same," as Amiri Baraka calls it, forestalls consideration of the interracial background from which ideologies of black music developed in the first place. The positioning of black music as a national marker of integrationist celebration, whether in the form of "America's classical music" or what W. E. B. Du Bois called "the most beautiful expression of human experience born this side the seas," depends on a broadly social circumstance out of which the music's prominence arose. The tenacity of belief in black musical essence, then, is neither a "black problem" nor a "race problem." Such beliefs stretch easily across the racial divide, from scholastics to popular literature to everyday speech, even if they are condescendingly attributed to an orthodox black racialism or Afrocentrism. Championed to reinforce claims of difference, "essence" betrays a common origin in the multiracial denials of irreversible racial mixture. For claims of black essence presume white ones, too; neither will fade until "white society" gives up its commitment to racial category. "It's up to you," James Baldwin observes. "As long as you think you're 'white,' there's no hope for you. As long as you think you're 'white,' I'm going to be forced to think I'm 'black.'"
Rather than merely deconstructing musical blackness, then, this study seeks, to the contrary, to enact a critical rendering of Reconstruction: to outline black music's very constitution as part and parcel of the broader emergence of race in American public history and culture. Situating black music within the texture of American life means no longer easily separating "black music" from "white music," nor, indeed, black music from the rest of the social experience. It requires us to engage critically the many myths of origin, which, in their association with legacies of race, are themselves Eurocentric, in order to move toward a more socially informed interpretive practice. This reconstruction against the fall of stable racio-musical concepts will reveal not only music's expressive capacities but also its generative, constitutive effects. In order to situate black music as a social force, we need to observe its place within historically evolving structures of relations, yet hopefully without succumbing to the implied continuities and essentialisms of traditional histories of American music. At the same time, these structures of relations propose another way of telling the story of black music, which, as a story, is inherently uniform and, to that extent, essential. If narrative conceptions of history escalate the violence of language and reason, they also more practically identify what gives coherence to the constructions of self, memory, and place. To give them up is to commit another kind of violence by privileging the old stories of an absolute racial binarism or, worse, to deracinate history under the cloak of an unacknowledged whiteness. As a matter of course, we must negotiate between analyses of the structures of relations that produced multiple series of black musics and the stories arising from the necessity of American racial experience. The challenge is to propose a story without succumbing to the racial fixities and transcendental concepts that more conventional renderings suggest. At the center of this story we will find the miraculous becoming of a black music that textures the nation's voice.
The comprehension of black music as a form constituted within and against racial discourses is, in the end, less the invention of "theory" than a proposal developing from historically grounded inquiry. As much as this study is informed by the insights of contemporary critical perspectives of society and culture, it speaks above all to the startling paucity of evidence sustaining the common portraits of African-American musical history. Consider, for example, the assumptions we commonly make about the consistency of black musical experience and stylistic practice. Black music, it is often claimed, is soulful, rhythmically affecting, based on collective engagements of call and response, and expressive of multiple levels of feeling and desire: pain, freedom, rebellion, and sexual ecstasy, just to name a few. The soulfulness of the singing voice, the overpowering qualities of swing are, we so often assume, formal absolutes that derive from black music's inherent character and distinctiveness. We believe these phenomenal and stylistic features to be part of the stuff of the music's expressive core. They have always been there and been perceived in the same way.
The historical accuracy of such claims, however, is impossible to verify, since they develop from presentist assumptions. Even if we could set aside the hermeneutical challenges of historical recovery and measure continuities empirically, we face the fact of a sonically absent history. The first recordings of black music, after all, appeared only in the early 1890s-led off by an Edison cylinder that sounded more "Irish" than "black"-and then not in significant numbers until the late 1910s and 1920s. What is more, given the historical and situational complexities of any culture's legacy, the experience and meaning of African-American musical practices had to vary enormously depending on time, place, and circumstance, but our historical record provides only the most scattered documentation of events. These variances had to affect the development and interpretation of expressive practices, yet we have no way of charting the complexities of the music's overarching formation. To assume that musical practices of the present document consistent patterns of performance and reception over the course of two hundred to three hundred years is to project one past onto another. It is to assume a kind of cultural stasis that ignores the flux of musical and sociodiscursive processes as it contradicts the broader historical record. The legacies of oppression and segregation that undoubtedly contributed to black music's distinctiveness are not enough to sustain arguments of an unyielding black essence any more than parallel claims of totalities of European heritage or frontier independence defend white ones.
It is especially difficult to draw safe conclusions about performance practices from the colonial and antebellum eras. As Dena Epstein observes, prior to the 1830s, African-American performances in North America were rarely documented and only, then, as passing asides in the texts of white observers more concerned with the primary economic and social details of Euro-American experience. "Authentic answers to these questions," she writes, "are not at all easy to find, for the published literature on the thirteen colonies says really very little about the black population and still less about its music. Those contemporary documents which have been examined barely mention them." When commentaries of black music do emerge, they appear cast in a racial language that, in the best circumstances, betrayed whites' conflicted sentiments toward the persistent challenges of black national presence. More conspicuous were the racist affronts of blackface minstrelsy that, whether expressing contempt or desire, effectively masked the interpretation of black performances to the point where no authentic and true source could be provided. (Ironically, as will be seen, this particular discourse was key to the invention of the very concept of the "original.") What we really have, in effect, is a fragmented body of cultural translations that mediate the course of "black music" from sound to text within the discourses of those who, for the most part, had typically antagonistic and tentative contact with African-Americans. While the narratives of African and African-American slaves added significantly to the historical picture, these texts, scattered across a long history until their flourish in the mid-to-late 1800s, cannot in themselves flesh out the picture. Even if there were substantial documentation of musical practices among slaves, we would need to read it through the same discourses observed in documents composed by whites, since it is through these latter texts that even black oppositionality is attended. To rely uncritically on either group, black or white-or even on the more sizable body of commentaries appearing after the Civil War-leads to an unproductive, unreliable history, one in which a "slave period" develops from present-day perceptions of "fact" apart from the texts and circumstances in which these facts were constituted. It is to submit to a kind of critical blindness guided by unseen ideologies of presentism and race that obscure the normalizing effects of writing as such.
Excerpted from Lying up a Nation by Ronald Radano Copyright © 2003 by The University Of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents
List of Illustrations
1. Telling Stories, Telling Lies Revisionist Listening and the Writing of Music History
2. Resonances of Racial Absence Black Sounding Practices Prior to "Negro Music"
3. First Truth, Second Hearing Audible Encounters in Antebellum Black and White
4. Magical Writing The Iconic Wonders of the Slave Spiritual
5. Of Bodies and Souls Feeling the Pulse of Modern Race Music
Epilogue- A Nation's Gift