Notes on the Essay

1.  The title “Coons! Freaks! Hillwilliams!” has an obvious downside in its racial slur. I hope it’s jarring. When an early version of the piece was published in 1997, some letters to the editor expressed understandable revulsion, but my subject is precisely the strange ways that race plays in American music, and not so very long ago, that animalizing term was anything but jarring. As I discuss in the essay, it referred, perfectly openly, to a popular music-publishing category and to a genre, which was developed to the fullest, in the end, by black composers; they used the term freely in writing songs enjoyed by white audiences (and black audiences as well). None of that makes it easier to deal with. For the purposes of this essay, neither would bowdlerization.

2. The tone of the 1997 version was snarkier and more confrontational than this one, in keeping both with the scabrous, post-punk-neocon NY Press style (or my impression of it) and, more importantly, with what felt like my last-ditch effort, at the time, to get noticed as a writer. I’ve grown belatedly out of a lot of that, but in revising the piece, I couldn’t bring it completely in line with what I think of as more mature modes. The memoir was inspired by anger, at forebears and myself, and I like to think I deal with that kind of inspiration differently now. But some of the old way still hangs around.

3. When I first wrote the essay, I thought every insight in it was original. I did come up with them, but others had been there before me, and although I was old enough to know better, I didn’t. I hadn’t yet read Robert Cantwell, making more optimistic connections than I ever will between minstrelsy and folk revival, and I thought the kind of attention I gave Dylan’s singing voice was mine alone, but Greil Marcus had been saying something like it for a long time. Lott’s benchmark Love and Theft hadn’t even come out when I wrote the first version of the piece, nor of course had Dylan’s album of the same name, and while I was able to work things like that back in to the piece, I couldn’t, I found, shove into the essay much that had pre-existed it, and which I wish I’d been aware of when I first wrote it. Some whiff of fear and arrogance, and fear and ignorance, may therefore persist.


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