Coons! Freaks! Hillwilliams! : 200 Years of Roots-Rock Revival (a Memoir)

Note: An earlier version of this piece was published as NY Press cover story way back in 1997, under Sam Sifton’s and John Strausbaugh’ s aegis, the first nonfiction I ever wrote, or at least ever published (and they paid me, sort of), thus beginning this whole fifteen-year-long thing. And I got the term “hillwilliams” from Strausbaugh. So thanks to Sifton and Strausbaugh. Then in 2010, an inspiring conversation with one of Greil Marcus’s New School seminars prompted me to revisit and develop the memoir: thanks as well to Marcus and his students. (For disclaimers and other background, see the pages linked above.  [UPDATE: and thanks to Harold Kirkpatrick for some Lead Belly corrections.])

1. Coons

When I was in grade school, cheerful young women led us kids in song. “All the world is sad and dreary,” we sang,  and “gone are the days,” and “my heart is bending low.” What doleful lyrics for kids to sing, and yet what catchy melodies. They were written by Stephen Foster.

The best-known American pop composer of the nineteenth century, Foster achieved great longevity. A century after his death, I knew his songs by heart. But it’s not Foster’s long survival or even his Victorian melancholy that startles my memory now. It’s his most enduring theme.

I was born after Brown v. Board of Education. When the first Civil Rights Act of the 1960’s was signed I was entering the fourth grade. Yet throughout my childhood I sang of black people’s unquenchable longing for a home in slavery.

* * * *

That theme made Foster the most important contributor to a genre that would come to be called “coon song.” Written and sung in what was called “Negro dialect,” coon songs began in the most important theatrical form in nineteenth-century America, the blackface minstrel show. White performers with darkened faces and clown-whitened lips shook nappy wigs and made what they called Ethiopian dance moves, transforming themselves into grotesques from a wondrous sister species, Jim Crow and Zip Coon, dusky pets with simplified features, a kind of comically human-acting animal, doll-like, at once bigger and smaller than life.

So if blackface minstrelsy didn’t exist, doctoral candidates in American Studies would have had to invent it. Plenty has been written on the subject. Eric Lott’s Love and Theft, the definitive scholarly work, uses terms like “contestation” and “performativeness” to place minstrelsy under a microscope. There are more direct ways of getting at minstresly too. The 2010 Broadway musical “The Scottsboro Boys” tried to put outright minstrel conventions on stage, and any number of books and films, by auteurs from Spike Lee to Sarah Silverman, confront and reflect on the minstrel show. Nobody would call the Carolina Chocolate Drops a minstrel act — as musicologists and performers, they’ve helped reclaim the African-American roots to banjo and fiddle music that many people think of as white folk tradition — but the band always makes clear its keen awareness of the how those roots were tangled with the blackface theater.

“Ole Zip Coon he is a larn’d scholar”

Still, blackface may perpetually alienate us, just because its influence on us has been so complete. The form began in eighteenth-century theater and song, became complicated by Emancipation — African-Americans themselves then became some of its best and most successful practitioners — and went on to inspire vaudeville, jazz, Broadway, movies, country music, and broadcast comedy and variety, and to make direct appearances in those forms, well into the twentieth century. So key has blackface been to our imaginative lives that we treat it as an anomaly.

Victorian theatergoers, by contrast, loved it unabashedly. “As sung by Negro slaves!” and “genuine Negro fun!” barked the handbills. The show wasn’t, as might be expected, Southern in origin. Its impresarios took trips South to mimic the music of African slaves, but their work was conceived and brought forth in the cities of the North. Middle- and working-class Yankees were beset by crowding and office and factory stress. Watching white men dance in blackface extravaganza, they encountered broad cotton fields and simple good times in a sweet sunny Soouth.

parlor sheet music

Stephen Foster lived most of his life in Pittsburgh, rarely crossed the Mason-Dixon line, and died in 1864 in New York’s Bellevue Hospital. He was a type we know today, hyper-sensitive and habitually intoxicated, hustling in the entertainment business. He had two main revenue streams. Theaters were stomping, smoky male bastions, and Foster sold sheet-music marked “ala niggerando” to the blackface companies that flourished there. Parlors, by contrast, were preserves of genteel private life, presided over by women, and Foster sold songs called sentimental — not a derogation but a frank classification: story-songs of feeling — for family enjoyment in the parlor.

Whereas minstrel songs masqueraded as Negro and Southern; sentimental songs masqueraded as antique and Anglo. They told of pale, dying lovers, beloved and aging parents, ruined cottages. They invoked for urban families the old oaken bucket and old dog Tray of a misty rural past. “How dear to my heart are the days of my childhood…” It was Foster’s special accomplishment to bring parlor nostalgia to the minstrel stage. He wanted to refine and enlighten blackface, which until his time mainly involved wild dance and rude, violent comedy. His own deliberately goofball “O! Susanna” exemplifies the classic, rowdy style: later verses, unsung today, rhyme “trabbeled down de ribber” with “killed five hundred nigger.” His “De Camptown Races,” with its famous “doo-dah! doo-dah!,” gave American pop a lasting image of mindless, day-off enthusiasm.

Embarrassed by his own prowess in that kind of thing, Foster began trying something new. He revived minstrelsy’s deepest sources in outdated eighteenth-century weepers like “I Sold a Guiltless Negro Boy” and “The Negro’s Humanity.” From the minstrel song “Dixie,” a staple of Yankee theater before it was theme song to the Confederacy, he copped his great theme: the undying wish to return South. In his “Old Folks at Home,” with its famous opening “‘Way down upon the Swannee Ribber,” in his “Old Black Joe,” with the haunting refrain “I’m coming, I’m coming,” in his “My Old Kentucky Home” — still sung on Derby day, racially cleansed, by teary, julep-drunk white ladies in hats — and in many other wistful compositions, Foster tried to humanize and make sympathetic minstrelsy’s weird blackface characters.

Foster sold even authorship credit to some of his music.

That’s an unusual project, humanizing a mask. Foster became lastingly famous for it. Writing coon songs as sentimental as parlor songs, he decisively influenced blackface minstrelsy and thus all of American culture. His black characters are exquisitely sad and lonely, but not because they’re enslaved. Quite the contrary. Like parlor-song narrators, they’ve often been geographically displaced, exiled somehow from where once they were happy, where their thoughts return longingly. For Foster’s blacks, that place is the antebellum South.

Foster died before Emancipation. Yet his white-impersonated Negroes, fantastically yearning, gave Yankee theater an archetype for the second half of the nineteenth century. Other composers developed the yearning black character. When African-American writers themselves took it up, they gave it strange resonance in songs like James Bland’s “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny” (“there’s where I labored so hard for old massa”). For Northern audiences after the Civil War, that wandering, longing Negro enabled a replacement of the actual, crushed political South, which was in reality being taught a hard lesson, with a luxurious, fertile, shimmering South, ever yearned for and lost, ever permissible to covet and desire.

My music teachers of the Yankee 1950’s and early ’60’s would never have said “coon songs” or “niggerando.” By the time I started school, kids had long been singing politely edited versions of racist songs that had once been belted, in full, from Victorian stages. Because most of the Negro dialect, and even whole offending verses, were removed from what we sang, we didn’t register contradictions or ask questions about what we absorbed.

Mouthing again and again Foster’s memorable rhetoric, singing again and again his lovely, foursquare melodies, I learned before I learned phonics or subtraction the salient racial characteristic of the Negro: longing for the old plantation.

2. Freaks

In high school I’d forgotten all about Stephen Foster’s songs. I was spending my time in a room called the student lounge. It belonged by squatters rights to the freaks. Jocks, grinds, and the relatively few black kids — my school was overwhelmingly white and upper-middle-class — might come to the lounge, but we freaks set the tone by making the lounge our dim and fetid cave, unventilated. Its walls were awash in scribblings of crazed prophecy. How dear to my heart are the days of my childhood. The lounge was our paradise, a classless society (cutting class was our main occupation — but that’s not what we meant). We imagined the state smashed or withered away. The lounge was our new home, and what counted there were our own delight and anguish, and music.

The very things, that is, that had most counted for generations of teenagers before us. But who before us had believed that to indulge those predilections was to re-make the nation, and even the universe, and to save them?

For us the music told the story. We hadn’t heard the Grateful Dead, free, in San Francisco or booed Bob Dylan at Forest Hills and Newport. I attended Monterey, Woodstock, and Altamont through films released after the events. By the time I saw any rock on stage, Woodstock had only just become a nation. We arrived in the lounge a few seconds late for the revolution.

So we listened to the music. But the funny thing is that we began a vogue for retrieving and cataloguing old music, giving the old, in our post-revolutionary utopia, precedence over the new. Like scholastic monks, we became connoisseurs of the old, its curators and explainers. We weren’t looking for innovation. We judged everything we heard on how well or poorly it adhered to and imitated canonical forms. Chuck Berry and Muddy Waters? Great guitarists, we agreed, each in his way. George Harrison? No way.

When my father was in high school, kids rejected oldies in favor of the latest. They danced to the latest and could at times be made crazy by it. Parents worried about the madness that might be inspired by the new. Benny Goodman sparked pandemonium. Louis Jordan scheduled two shows in every city, one for black kids and one for white, to minimize fighting. Though we in the lounge didn’t remember it, argument about Elvis Presley was even more recent.

Al Jolson probably started it all. Raised to be a cantor at the turn of the last century, he emoted in blackface on Broadway and drove young and genteel gentiles wild. In families with parlor pianos, rebellion over sex and race has been enacted in music since before the jazz age.

In the lounge, that changed. Rebellion had gone all the way. We deemed it successful, the lounge a remade world. So we banned AM radio for being what we called “commercial.” When I twiddled my transistor radio’s FM band until I found, with a thrill I can still recall, that correct electric-guitar sound, and those coolly stoned intellectual deejays, I knew that I communed with others in the classless freak elect. We who knew that everything good came from a sacred fountain we called blues.

It’s hardly worth pointing out that in 1970, baby-boom taste was simply taking its first, stumbling steps toward a now familiar cultivation of everything gourmet. What’s worth pointing out is that in 1970 I allowed myself to believe it meant the end of capitalism.

3. The Old Folks at Home

The question, naturally, is this: How could I have believed — literally believed — such a thing?

An answer: All American song is coon song.

Stephen Foster’s weren’t the only songs I sang in grade school. I sang folk songs too. Musicologists and educators had long since brought the songs of working people into American classrooms. Many of those advocates of folk music were communists, influenced, putting it mildly, by the dictates of the Soviet Union. In the mid-1930’s, American radicals encouraged by new policies of the World Congress of the Communist International began linking folk music, “the people’s music,” to a worldwide struggle against capital.

Leftists’ ideas about music, like those of the minstrel performers before them, leaned southward. In the rural South, leftists imagined, far from industrialization and commercialization, songs and tunes never exploited for capitalists’ greed continued to flourish, sustained by the collective genius of the people themselves, in opposition to crass pop cranked out for filthy lucre to dull the class-consciousness of the urban proletariat. Where the blackface impresarios were theater producers, sideshow barkers, musical appropriators, and unabashed carnies — they advertised “genuine Negro fun!” but never believed their music was authentic — the leftist collectors believed. They went south to study and preserve the people’s music.

Sheer strangeness made traditional Southerners naturally fascinating to the educated urbanites who now encountered them, and traditional music was indeed full of mystery and beauty. Collectors recorded and bore specimens northward to be catalogued by the Archive of Folk Song, released in albums of 78’s by the Library of Congress (many leftists worked there during the New Deal era), and snapped up by urban bohemians.

But the collectors were faced with a disappointing fact. Musical strangeness, mystery, and beauty turned out not to arise from any innate folk rejection of commerciality in music. The Scots-Irish banjoist who banged away into a giant tape recorder for a Yankee folklorist might also walk miles every Saturday night to sit before somebody’s wet-cell radio and immerse himself in the glitz and sales patter of “The Grand Ole Opry” broadcast. A black thumb-style guitar player was capturing, as best he could, the oom-pah of ragtime piano. Anything but pure, many of the tunes those musicians played, uncredited to their authors and handed down in families, had really been composed by Stephen Foster and other Yankee sheet-music sellers of the previous century. Commercial endeavors like medicine shows, minstrel tours, vaudeville, radio, and 78 rpm recording had long been affecting Southern folk music.

Anyway, few rural Southerners wanted to be singing about a worldwide revolution for the working class. So we can imagine the rush of coming across an uneducated rural Southerner who actually did write class-conscious songs. Charles Seeger, an eminent musicologist of WASP breeding and Communist Party affiliation, found Aunt Molly Jackson, a mineworking singer-songwriter driven from Kentucky by the bosses’ thugs. He brought her to a meeting of radical-egghead music theorists. She sang them her composition “I Am a Union Woman.”

And John and Alan Lomax, a tireless father-son collecting team, found Huddie Ledbetter, known as Lead Belly, a black guitarist and singer serving a ten-year sentence in Louisiana’s Angola State Penitentiary for assault with intent to kill. John Lomax helped Lead Belly get a pardon and put him behind the wheel of a Cadillac [UPDATE: Maybe not a Cadillac, not sure where I got that; the Lomax Model T is pretty famous. See Harold Kirkpatrick's comment]. The convict chauffeured the collector north. There Lomax costumed his find in prison stripes [UPDATE: This is starting to sound like a base canard that I should have run down before now. See again the comments section.] and put him on stage for college audiences.

John Lomax collecting songs.

John Lomax was a self-made man and political conservative. When Lead Belly broke way from Lomax pere, and became schooled in the terminology of class struggle by Lomax fils, he did write a song called “Bourgeois Blues.”

But Lead Belly gave the folk left a new problem. He was a big man and a riveting performer. His twelve-string guitar boomed and shimmered. He’d traveled with Blind Lemon Jefferson, one of the earliest recorded singers of rural blues, and had learned the wealth of songs shared at the turn of the last century by itinerant musicians black and white. Anyone who wants to hear, possibly at its best, the lost music once played in railroad yards and taverns and on wagon-rutted streets must hear Lead Belly’s recordings.

Among collegiate liberals and leftists in 1940’s New York City, however, the singer’s deeply accented country Negritude turned out to be an acquired taste. Audiences were in one way titillated by him, in another way distressed. Lead Belly’s real repertoire (not the Alan Lomax-prompted “Bourgeois Blues”) gave no weight to the plight of the disenfranchised. Hardly a comrade in global struggle, Lead Belly evinced impenetrable reserve and normal mistrust, calling almost all white men “sir” while looking down. He could kill you, but he wasn’t about to give you the time of day. Soon Lead Belly was serving another prison term, again for assault.

Lead Belly wasn’t, in the end, what communists had in mind for the people’s music. Aunt Molly Jackson did sing about union organizing, but she had that shrill hillbilly voice that cuts granite. Urban audiences liked to imagine folk singing as lilting, haunting, Elizabethan. They didn’t find Aunt Molly’s singing very pretty. She ended up running a New York restaurant.

Traditional music can be hair-raising. Its motivations can be unedifying. Unless transformed, it could not gratify the hopes and dreams of urban leftists.

* * *

The transformation was carried out by the musicologist Charles Seeger’s son Pete. Young, high-strung, and passionately opposed to injustice, in the early 1940’s Pete Seeger invented a style that exemplified what his father had always insisted, against all evidence to the contrary, people’s music really is.

In a loft near the Communist Party’s headquarters in New York, the young Seeger played and sang with Lee Hays and Millard Lampell. At the Party’s behest, the trio wrote what they called “peace songs,” defending Kremlin isolationism during the Hitler-Stalin pact and attacking President Roosevelt for even considering making war on Nazi Germany. Then Hitler broke the pact and German tanks rolled into Russia. The Party line reversed, and Seeger’s trio started writing songs urging the U.S. into war and attacking Hitler (and after Pearl Harbor, extolling the Allied war effort). They performed those compositions, along with union agitprop and traditional songs, at left events.

Seeger learned five-string banjo from players in the rural South. He accompanied his singing with his banjo-playing, and he and his cohort adopted all-purpose fake Southern accents. They wore work clothes — a distinguishing apparel then, pre-Gap. They dreamed up resumes of poverty and restless travel, borrowed from thousands of displaced farm families and laborers who really did live in Hoovervilles and jungle camps and ride boxcars during the Depression in the desperate search for work. Skeptical listeners today may find it hard to imagine that Seeger’s singing and exhortation, mixing the snootiest Brahmin with faux-dustbowl — all that earnest ramblin’! and singin’! and joinin’ up with the good old union! — could summon even a really dim picketing mineworker to a sense of comradeship. At any rate, Popular Front intellectuals in New York were delighted by the new sound in folk.

With his bands the Almanac Singers and the later, more influential Weavers, Seeger sanded the roughness off traditional American music. The bands “sang out,” voices thrilling with sincerity, eyeballs straining upward to the mountaintop. They elicited clapping along and unity. Here was music more authentic than the real thing — the folk music that leftist musicologists had failed to find among the actual folk. Seeger and those who imitated him carried audiences home, at once forward to the collectivist future of socialist realism and backward to an unsullied American past.

Seeger’s kind of folk music did have popular appeal — but in a twist, it went pop, not Popular Front. Political shifts put the music through quick changes. After the real war, a cold war was declared, and the U.S. began rooting out communist subversion wherever it could be found or imagined. Seeger refused to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. He was indicted and blacklisted. The effect was, as intended, politically chilling.

Yet clean-cut urban and suburban folk, stripped of its politics, got hot. In the 1950’s, folk established itself as a boutique alternative to the teen dance music that deejays called rock and roll. Folk was the college style, sometimes confessionally poetic, strummed by guys in skinny suits and beatnicky gals perched on stools. Then, as the McCarthy terror receded, politics re-entered the music, and  politics, called “protest,” went pop too.

Joan Baez was a protester, and her music sounded just the way leftists had always wished folk music to sound; she looked the way they’d always wished folk singers to look. Peter, Paul & Mary took Seeger’s “If I Had a Hammer” to the top ten; in 1963, their version of Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” reached the top five. In 1965, when Dylan himself had still barely been heard on U.S. radio, Barry McGuire, a Dylan imitator, took the protest anthem “Eve of Destruction” to number one.

Hence the crisis routinely celebrated in rock history. It was easy for Pete Seeger to see Bob Dylan as a force for world-historical change. When he was barely twenty, Dylan did a dead-on Woody Guthrie, and it was really Guthrie who served as patron saint of 1960’s protest folk. Back in the ’40’s, Guthrie had used his genuine dustbowl background to lord it over the left folk movement. He wrote topical songs, often wittily irresistible. He expressed visionary, democratic spirituality in the manner of Walt Whitman. He hated power, property, and politicians (maybe in part because his father was a businessman and politician who failed, sending the family into poverty). Guthrie’s enthusiams included communism, Jesus, and sex and couldn’t be contained in a Party line. Seeger and the others had a hard time coping with Guthrie, but they supported and promoted his legacy, and by the early 1960’s, when Guthrie was dying of Huntington’s disease, young folk singers from around the country made pilgrimages to sit at his feet.

Many since have found charming, in its supposed ass-backwardness, the ailing Guthrie’s assessment of the young Dylan. “That boy’s got a voice,” Guthrie is reported to have said. “Maybe he won’t make it with his writing, but the boy can sing it. He can really sing it.” And because Dylan did so much, in the infancy of his career, to sound like Guthrie, the comment might seem merely self-congratulatory.

Woody and Lead Belly

But Guthrie had ears, and Dylan had a voice. Not figuratively. Unfortunately for Pete Seeger, Dylan’s was not the voice of youth or of idealism. At twenty, Dylan could sound older and more fed up than God. Literally a singing voice. It may be as affected as Seeger’s, but unlike Seeger’s it possesses all the gauntness and all the frolic, vicious, seductive, and hilarious by turns, nurtured for centuries in the best American music, commercial and otherwise. Sometimes nowadays Dylan is depicted as a kind of griot, the last repository of a secret history. But there’s plenty of tummler in that voice too, and in the songwriting and bandleading that support it, some whorehouse brass, maybe even some Sophie Tucker. Everything the folk revival had tried to purge from folk music came back in Dylan’s folk singing.

It’s worth dwelling on the idea that those seminal musical forms ragtime and jazz were fostered among the most painful contradictions in minstrelsy: black performers, masking blackness in blackface, made a strutting dance called “the cakewalk” the rage of 1890’s New York. Hillbilly radio, too, beloved by folk-revivalists today, was really putting Victorian oaken-bucket sentiment together with ragtime beats on cheap stringed instruments. Not for nothing did Dylan title an album “Love and Theft,” Eric Lott’s title for the scholarly work on blackface. (Well, maybe not for nothing. We’ll never know.)  That album delves, for the first notable time in Dylan’s career, into Victorian traditions of parlor sentiment.

Our best music has never been about union. It must have disappointed Seeger terribly when Dylan made that as plain as dirt.

4. Cakewalk

In the lounge, we had gobbled the folk movement alive and now equated musical authenticity with millennium. FM-band rock was an image of revolution both accomplished and ongoing. Folded by Dylan into the electric-blues revival, urban folk had become the rock that Life magazine then called “new” and radio demographers have been trying, since the 1980’s, to flatter my generation by calling “classic.” As firmly as Seeger ever had, we thought music and revolution were one. But we thought it backward. In Woodstock Nation, all you had to do to make the revolution permanent is buy the right albums.

I’ve preferred not to tell this story.

It was axiomatic for the freaks to admire black people: we’d become aficionados of blues and revered blues as black. I’m not saying all of us listened to a lot of old blues. The men who built the British Empire didn’t actually read a lot of Shakespeare. They noted, between gin-and-tonics, his pre-eminence; they read Kipling. We too hoisted old masters into the pedestal and made sure we knew their names — from Lightnin’ Hopkins to John Lee Hooker, from B.B. King to Albert King to Freddy King, from Buddy Guy and Muddy Waters to Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. We reserved debate for new releases by the white artists that we actually did listen to, spinning albums on our cruddy lounge record player. In 1970 those records included “I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die” (Country Joe & the Fish), “Let It Bleed” (Rolling Stones), “Live at Leeds” (The Who), and “Sweet Baby James” (James Taylor’s breakout–and he revived “O! Susanna”). We considered their relative merits by assessing the degree to which they conformed with a mood that we identified with the blues masters but didn’t yet have a name for.

That thing has since come to be called “roots.” It’s also worth recalling that by today’s roots standards we worked a very narrow field. In 1970 we hadn’t admitted bluegrass to the canon alongside blues. We didn’t yet know about Gram Parsons’s pothead country or Willie Nelson the country pothead. The Byrds’ “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” — routinely touted today as the benchmark album that brought country to rock — hadn’t sold. In 1970 we knew the sound of pedal steel mainly from “Workingman’s Dead,” and it was a new sound to us, cool because at first inexplicable, psychedelia mixing with worksong moods of our grade-school folk-singing. Roots reverence for Hank Williams, for example, came far later than any roots aficionado  roughly my age cares to remember. In 1970 Hank Williams was, to us, just a late-night TV record-offer goof.

We’d seen “Easy Rider” and heard rumors of “Okie from Muskogee.”  Rednecks were our counterrevolutionary enemies.

It was black people we canonized. Just not these black people. The ones who went to our school.

The school was very largely white, but there were black kids too, and in 1970 they became abruptly incomprehensible to us. Freaks wore t-shirts and flannel plaids and baggy jeans, the dustbowl exploded in velvet and embroidery, and dragged our heels around in boots. The black kids started walking around on high platforms. They wore wide, double-knit flares or stiff, new jeans with razor-sharp creases and cuffs. Freaks were pleased with the origins of our terms like “dig it” and the all-purpose intensifier “man” in the slang of the black r&b masters we adored. But the black kids didn’t talk like that. They were using new terms in new speech patterns that left us out.

And for all of their hard street language and attitude, for all of their racial solidarity and even possible separatism, they seemed bourgeois. They didn’t want to join our classless visionary company. They weren’t living in a post-revolutionary utopia. They seemed academically and socially ambitious. They kept their clothes and bodies clean.

And they didn’t seem to revere the blues. So even as they became a strong presence in the lounge, there was no place for the black kids in freak reality. They became — literally, for us — unreal.

Our school couldn’t have staged a racial incident worthy of the name. Freak fantasy aside, bright young adults paid close attention to our development. We kids had known each other a long time; at times we’d liked each other, at worst tolerated one another’s differences.

But the Jackson Five were just too much.  We revered black music — but not this black music. The Jackson Five were new, and the black kids played them as incessantly as we played James Taylor. Younger people today see all pop of that period as adorably “seventies,” but this was the actual seventies, and barely so. The Jackson Five lacked that roots thing that we associated with blues, they had hit singles on AM radio, they were teenybop, they did precision dancing, and their lead singer was a shrill child. They were, in our term of deepest opprobrium, bubblegum.

I don’t mean we didn’t like the Jackson Five. I mean the Jackson Five seemed to us unreal, and that the Jackson Fine seemed to us unblack.

Put it another way: When the Jackson Five were on the lounge record player, the freak universe imploded. It collapsed on itself.

One morning five or six of us found ourselves in a stairwell bitching about the music that came blaring from the lounge. It had driven us out. I can’t recall the exact dialogue, but I know the tone: the deadpan derision we’ve never relinquished and have passed on to new generations. How could they listen to that. “ABC, do re mi.” Please.

So we resolved to go trucking into the lounge to the sounds of the Jackson Five. We would goof on the black kids’ music. We would demonstrate the inappropriateness of their bubblegum. I think we thought we would enlighten them.

Trucking: This was a way of walking we’d learned from R. Crumb’s underground comics, in which a character (usually white) takes absurd steps, head and trunk hypertilted back, legs thrusting forward in turn, right palm raised and quivering at ear level. Crumb’s “Keep on Trucking” logo turned up later on every eighteen-wheeler’s mudflaps, but at the time it was freak code for stoned good times. We didn’t know that trucking had begun as an exaggerated walk of young black men in the 1930’s and ’40’s. We’d taken in, without registering any unpleasant contradictions, the deployment throughout Crumb’s work of old-school racial mimicry and parody. We responded viscerally to Crumb’s caustic, creepy take on psychedelia; cracking up helplessly while reading him wrecked, and we barely noticed that he was busy savaging our utopianism. We felt subversively and innocently spontaneous when for a minute or so at a time, self-charmed by our goofiness, we trucked in a line of freaks down the street, an image,  we imagined, of the permanent condition of the happy Haight-Ashburyans.

So through the lounge door we came, five or six of us trucking in line, kicking out our feet, waving our hands, leaning way back, cracking up laughing. We made a circuit of the room while the Jacksons sang “I’m going back to Indiana, Indiana here I come.” Other things were going on in the lounge, and our outburst of rowdiness didn’t, after all, stop anyone in their tracks. The black kids didn’t grab the needle and whip the album from the turntable in chagrin. All eyes were not on us. Our act fell flat.

But just as we were completing our circuit, and some of us were collapsing hilariously onto filthy beanbag chairs, I got a reaction: “Racist!”

It was Patricia, one of the black kids, about my age, someone I hadn’t been friends with, exactly, but with whom I had at times, I think, shared some humorous regard, some mutual respect. I froze. I was stunned, mid-truck. She’d picked me out. Her eyes were angry, of course, but they were also amazed. She couldn’t believe I was doing what I was doing.

I couldn’t believe she was using this word about me.

She repeated it. She made sure I heard it. She expected a response. The Jacksons sang “Indiana, here I come.” As I ducked Patricia’s eyes, dropped my trucking position, and tried to turn away, I knew very briefly exactly what I’d really just been doing.

Had I ever even heard of blackface or the minstrel shows? It doesn’t matter. Snagged by Patricia’s glare, I knew what counts about the whole story. I could feel it in my posture. Trucking to the Jacksons, I was performing a white parody of blackness. I was doing a coon dance in the lounge. And I was doing it to make clear to the black kids in the lounge that, when it came to music, they were not, to me, really human.

I tried to speed that moment along and get it over with. Patricia had totally misconstrued the thing! Trucking wasn’t “racist!” Please.

I sat in a chair, shaking my head, but still she glared at me. She was waiting for something. The clarity of her anger and disappointment continued to defeat, for just a moment longer, some power I’d believed I had, and sometimes still believe in, the conjuring in my love of music. Held in that long instant by the outrage in Patricia’s eyes, I knew I wasn’t really a freak. The lounge wasn’t freak paradise. It didn’t belong to the freaks. Really, everybody hung out there. I was a heedless, precociously arrogant and noisy boy, caught up in a lot of silly ideas.

Unbearable. I muttered something at last from my chair. “Could be,” I said. “It’s racist!” she insisted, further outraged, because what was I saying now? “Could be,” I parried.

A new attitude was helping me out of that moment. I meant: Sure, why not, I get it, since I can’t deny it. Racism does pervade our society, after all. Yes, you’ve hit on something here. Aren’t we all, in the end, infected with racism? The fascist state, the military-industrial complex? And hey! we got brainwashed in grade school by those Stephen Foster songs! . . . So I guess, you know, it really could be.

In the absence of a human response, she’d turned away, fed up. What a relief.

* * *

Soon I would run from the lounge. I would reject rock. One thing I’d do is start listening to jazz. I began with the most dissonant of the avant garde. I could only pretend to get it, in order to begin, very slowly, to really get some of it.

And I went the other way too. I got my first pawnshop five-string banjo. In my room I picked my way through an Appalachia of the mind, first learning from Pete Seeger’s “how to” book, then spurning Seeger as inauthentic, listening instead to Library of Congress field recordings, finally devoting myself to the playing style of a region of southwest Virginia that I’d not yet set eyes on.

I was looking for the real thing. I thought I was seeking white roots now — what I wanted my own roots to be. But there’s no instrument more fraught with racial American complexity, with minstrelsy, than that stringed West-African drum the banjer. The more traditional the style in which you play it, the more you’re playing rock and roll.

Meanwhile something else went on. Honkytonk and white church music were rejoining rock. The beautiful preppie Gram Parsons founded a long line of hillwilliams. Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings traded Nashville, which they associated with slickness and falsehood, for Texas, rugged and authentic. In song after song (many of them Nashville hits, naturally), they built a wild-west Xanadu of leather and lace, willing women, swashbuckling and drinking and drug-taking and ringlets falling down out of Stetsons. It was there, I came to believe — again, literally believe — that cowboys and preppies, outlaws and lawmen, rednecks and freaks would become one. The sacred spring of my music would be found and tasted at last.

So when I was in my early twenties, and old enough to know better, I left my childhood home and traveled all over this land, more than once, a wayfaring stranger, looking for that place. It’s so beautifully art-directed on the back cover of Emmylou Harris’s album “Elite Hotel.” The empty frontier-town street, the dying late-afternoon light, and the dark lady gazing from solitary distance into sagebrush horizons we’ll never see.

I was old enough to know. I didn’t want to know.

American song is coon song.That place is noplace but in the lady’s sweetly rasped singing. Hearts ever yearn for the old plantation and the old oaken bucket, beyond the horizon and home sweet home. Way down upon the Swannee River, in fever dreams like mine, our music is forever recovering the lost places, anywhere but here, where everything once was real.

END

William Hogeland’s most recent book is Founding Finance: How Debt, Speculation, Foreclosures, Protests, and Crackdowns Made Us a Nationfrom University of Texas Press. He blogs at http://www.williamhogeland.com.

7 thoughts on “Coons! Freaks! Hillwilliams! : 200 Years of Roots-Rock Revival (a Memoir)

  1. My second reading is done. The tangled roots of the Carolina Chocolate Drops is the tip of the iceberg. Great writing on the Great Tangle.

    Thanks again.

  2. John A. Lomax never owned a cadillac. His car was a Ford. He never dressed Leadbelly up in prison stripes, but he did insist that Leadbelly wear overalls while demonstrating songs for Lomax’s college lectures. Leadbelly had a ringing tenor voice and was a big presence but he was not a big man — about 5′ 8. Woody Guthrie, of Welsh background, was indeed very short.

    • Where I got the Caddy I’ll never know now. It’s lost in many decades of overlapping misconception. I can see that car! But I guess it doesn’t exist, and now that the issue’s come up, I realize I already knew that the Model T is pretty famous. I regret the error, but not all that much, compared to the next one …

      Those prison stripes. If this is a misconception — and it looks like it may be — it’s a nasty and widely held one. Am I right to shift blame to Joe Klein’s book on Guthrie? I can’t look it up right now. In any event, this is something I should have run down. More on that to come, but here’s Ellen Harold and Don Fleming defending the Lomaxes and debunking and explaining the stripes legend, among other things: http://www.culturalequity.org/currents/ce_currents_leadbelly_faqs.php

      Big. I’m standing by my characterization. One source put Lead Belly at 6’0″, but even at 5’8″, he seems to have struck most people as having the huge breadth and muscle mass that I and many others are not wrong to call “big.” The elfin Woody does make Lead Belly look huger than perhaps he was.

      On Lead Belly’s tenor: for a moment there, reading the comment, I inferred I’d called him a bass! I didn’t — and that would have been *really* weird — but you never know. I first wrote this essay in a heat of somewhat overreactive rage fifteen years ago, and while I like to think I’ve scrubbed some of the more sweeping, glib, and hasty stuff out, I’ll never get to see it really clearly.

      And the Alan Lomax style of patronizing and constructing African-American pain will always bug me. Here, for example, it’s pretty chilling: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5n8skkVSlzs

      I’m making some corrections in the piece based on this important comment — that’s something online publishing happily allows — so I leave this note here in the interest of transparency, and to document my screwy creative process.

  3. Outstanding. I have other embarrassing accolades for you but will refrain unless you insist.

    Leadbelly playing “Big Fat Woman With The Meat Shakin’ on her Bones” on piano probably scared the hell outta the social set up north. Lomax was quite the opportunist but Leadbelly knew a good thing when he saw it also. Though your corrections are welcome re: the Leadbelly-Lomax Complex, your original assertions were probably not far off the figurative mark, but I tend go with my gut rather than the literal.

    One aspect of American music that didn’t occur to me until the past couple of years (though you may be familiar with) is the influence of Native American music on the Delta Blues, specifically in the rhythms of Charlie Patton. Patton’s music has also suffered great disservice at the hands of its Euro-American caretakers. Case in point are the lyrics from “Down A Dirt Road Blues” (also a good example of Native American rhythms, from the two-second intro onward). He’s singing “Can’t go down a dark road by myself”, not “Can’t go down a dirt road by myself”. Dissed again, native son.

    As Patton’s background was just as much Cherokee as it was black, it’s no wonder he’s suffered some kind of diss at the hands of the larger culture that spent so much time trying to dehumanize and wipe out the Native. The only thing lower than blacks in Patton’s America were Injuns. Even though he was a poet, in the world’s jaundiced eye he’s misunderstood as just another negro singing about some dirt road down south somewhere. American song is coon song, agreed. But the BOOM-boomboom is injun.

    I’ll be ordering “Founding Finance”, btw. It looks right up my alley. Cheers.

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