Note: An early version of this piece was published as a NY Press cover story way back in 1997, under Sam Sifton’s and John Strausbaugh’ s auspices, the first nonfiction I ever wrote, or at least ever published (and they paid me, sort of), thus beginning this whole
fifteen-year-very long thing. And I copped 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 piece: thanks as well to Marcus and his students. (For disclaimers and other background, see my notes in the tabs above, and [UPDATE: thanks to Harold Kirkpatrick for some Lead Belly corrections.])
1. Coon Song
When I was in grade school, cheerful young women led us 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 as a white child, I sang of black people’s supposedly unquenchable longing for a home in slavery.
That theme made Foster the most important contributor to a genre that would come to be called, jarringly enough, “coon song”: not very long ago, that was a casually deployed term of art in music publishing. Written and sung in what was called “Negro dialect,” the genre 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 dark wigs and made what they called Ethiopian dance moves, transforming themselves into grotesques from a wondrous sister species, Jim Crow and Zip Coon, a kind of comically human-acting animal, doll-like, at once bigger and smaller than life, operating in a zone of white fantasy somehow both stolen from and denigrating of black people.
If blackface minstrelsy didn’t exist, American Studies programs would have to invent it. Plenty has been written on the subject. Eric Lott’s Love and Theft, probably still the definitive scholarly work, uses terms like “contestation” and “performativeness” to place minstrelsy under a microscope. More direct ways of getting at minstrelsy include the 2010 Broadway musical “The Scottsboro Boys,” which tried to put outright minstrel conventions on stage, and any number of books and films by auteurs from Spike Lee to Sarah Silverman that confront and reflect on the minstrel show. Nobody would call the Carolina Chocolate Drops a minstrel act — as musicologists and performers, they’ve reclaimed African-American roots in a banjo-fiddle form that many people have taken for white folk tradition — but the band has often made clear its keen awareness of the how those roots were tangled with the blackface theater.
For all of the writing about it and reference to it, blackface may always alienate us — just because its influence so entirely blankets us. The form began in eighteenth-century theater and song, became complicated when black writers and performers themselves 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. It made direct appearances in the main streams of those forms well into the twentieth century; the indirect appearances are incalculable. So central is blackface to our public imagination, so revealing of fundamental American vernacular style, that we prefer to treat it as inexplicably alien. Over and over again, we’re embarrassed to notice it.
White Victorian theatergoers weren’t like us. They loved blackface. “As sung by Negro slaves!” and “genuine Negro fun!” barked the handbills falsely, unabashedly. Minstrelsy was by no means Southern in origin: its impresarios took trips southward to copy and mimic the music of enslaved African-descended people, but their work was conceived and brought forth in the cities of the North, where middle- and working-class white men, beset by crowding and office and factory stress, watched other white men dance in blackface extravaganza and encountered the broad cotton fields and simple good times of a fantastically sweet sunny South.
Stephen Foster, the early leading exponent, lived most of his life in Pittsburgh. He rarely crossed the Mason-Dixon line. He died in 1864 in New York’s Bellevue Hospital. A type we know today, hypersensitive and habitually intoxicated, a hustler in the entertainment business, Foster had two main revenue streams. One came from theaters: stomping, smoky male bastions. Foster sold sheet-music, sometimes marked “ala niggerando,” to the blackface companies that flourished there. The other came from the parlor. Here was the preserve of genteel private life, presided over by women. Foster sold songs called sentimental — not a derogation but a frank classification, story-songs of feeling — for family enjoyment at the parlor piano.
Where minstrel songs masqueraded as southern and Negro, sentimental songs masqueraded as anonymous and Anglo. They told of pale, dying lovers, beloved and aging parents, ruined cottages. They invoked for modern, 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. Until his time, the form mainly involved wild dance and rude, violent comedy. His own deliberately goofball “O! Susanna” exemplifies that classic, rowdy style. Later verses, unsung today for obvious reasons, 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.
Foster was embarrassed by his own prowess in that kind of thing, so he tried something new. He revived some of 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 became theme song to the Confederacy — he copped his great theme: an undying wish to return South. In Foster’s “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 bowdlerized, 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.
That’s an unusual project, humanizing a mask, and Foster became lastingly famous for it. Writing coon song as sentimental as parlor song, 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 the parlor-song narrators, often they’ve been geographically displaced, exiled somehow from where they once were happy, and where their thoughts forever longingly return For Foster’s blacks, that place is the antebellum South.
Foster died before Emancipation. His white-impersonated Negroes, yearning so fantastically, gave Yankee theater an archetype for the second half of the nineteenth century. Other white composers developed the yearning black narrator, but it was when African-American composers took that character up, in songs like James Bland’s “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny” (“there’s where I labored so hard for old massa”), that the style gained its strangest resonances.
For Northern audiences after the Civil War, the wandering, longing Negro enabled a magical replacement: the actual, defeated, evil, political South was swapped out for luxurious, fertile, shimmering South, ever longed for and lost, ever permissible to covet. Such fantasies may have eased the process of North-South reconciliation, ending Reconstruction and plunging the real South into generations of new oppression and violence. I was born in Richmond, Virginia, a segregated city, in 1955, but we soon moved to New York City, and when I started school there in 1960 music teachers would never have used the term “coon song.” We kids sang politely edited versions of the racist songs that had once been belted, unedited, from Victorian stages. Now and then a tattered, mildew-smelling songbook would turn up, and I’d read “de” for “the” and “dis” for” this and ponder the dialect: without thinking about it, I think I took the songs for slaves’ real songs, despite authorship credit.
Mostly, though, the dialect and entire offending verses were removed from what we sang. We didn’t register any scabrous contradictions or ask questions about what we were absorbing. 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 supposedly salient racial characteristic of the Negro: longing for the old plantation.
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, making the lounge our dim and fetid cave, unventilated, its walls awash in scribblings of crazed prophecy.
Truly. 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 counted for generations of teenagers before us. Yet who before us had believed that to indulge those predilections was to re-make the nation, even remake 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 immediarely after those events. By the time I saw any rock on stage, Woodstock had just become a nation. We arrived in the lounge only seconds late for the revolution. And so we listened to the music.
But the funny thing is that we began a vogue for retrieving and cataloguing old music. In our post-revolutionary utopia, the old had precedence over the new. Like scholastic monks, we became connoisseurs of the old, its curators, its 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 thus inspired. 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 yet 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 the genteel gentiles wild. In families with parlor pianos, rebellion over sex and race had been enacted in music since before the jazz age.
In the lounge, all that changed. Rebellion was complete; 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, those coolly stoned intellectual deejays, I knew that I communed with others in the classless freak elect.
What we knew: everything good came from a sacred fountain that we called blues.
It’s hardly worth pointing out that in 1970, white baby-boom taste was simply taking its first, stumbling steps toward a now all too 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, of course. I sang folk songs too. Musicologists and educators had long since brought the songs of working people into American classrooms. Many early 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 had been 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 what they thought of as a people’s music.
Sheer strangeness made traditional Southerners naturally fascinating to the educated left urbanites who 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 soon faced disappointment. Musical strangeness, mystery, and beauty turned out to arise not from 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 imitating the oom-pah of ragtime piano. Anything but pure, many of the tunes those musicians played, uncredited to their authors and handed down via tradition, had 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 been shaping Southern folk music for generations.
Even more disappointing: not many rural Southerners were singing songs about a worldwide revolution for the working class. So we can imagine the rush a left collector might experience when 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 north to a meeting of radical-egghead music theorists; she sang them her composition “I Am a Union Woman.” That was gold.
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 Model T Ford. The convict chauffeured the collector north. There Lomax costumed his find in prison stripes [UPDATE: This is more complicated than that statement suggests; I’ll do some notes on it someday] and put him on stage for college audiences.
John Lomax was a self-made man and a political conservative. It was only when Lead Belly broke way from Lomax pere, and became schooled in the terminology of class struggle by Lomax fils, that he wrote the song “Bourgeois Blues.” Left folkies loved that one.
But Lead Belly gave the folk left a new problem. He was a big man — not tall but packed — and a riveting performer. His twelve-string guitar boomed and shimmered; his tenor grabbed the ear. 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 southernness turned out to be an acquired taste. Audiences were in one way titillated by Lead Belly, in another way distressed. His real repertoire — not the Alan Lomax-prompted “Bourgeois Blues” — gave little attention to the plight of the disenfranchised and had no place for Marxist categories. Soon Lead Belly was serving another prison term, again for assault. He just wasn’t, in the end, what communists had in mind for the people’s music.
Aunt Molly Jackson did at least sing about union organizing — but she had that shrill hillbilly voice that cuts granite, and urban audiences liked to imagine folk singing as lilting, haunting, Elizabethan. They didn’t find Aunt Molly’s singing pretty. She ended up running a New York restaurant.
Traditional music can be hair-raising. Its themes and motivations can be unedifying. Unless suitably transformed, it could not gratify the hopes and dreams of urban leftists.
* * *
That 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 authentically is. In a loft near the Communist Party’s headquarters in New York, the younger Seeger played and sang with Lee Hays and Millard Lampell, and at the Party’s behest, the trio wrote what they called “peace songs,” defending the Kremlin’s Hitler-Stalin pact and attacking President Roosevelt for even considering making war on Nazi Germany. Then Hitler broke the pact. German tanks rolled into Russia. The Party line reversed overnight, and Seeger’s trio started writing songs urging the U.S. into war and attacking Hitler. After Pearl Harbor, with the U.S. now actively fighting, their songs extolled the Allied war effort. Seeger and the others performed those compositions, along with union agitprop and traditional songs, at left events.
Seeger had 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, which somehow mixed 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 any sense of comradeship. Popular Front intellectuals in New York, at any rate, were delighted by this new sound in folk.
Seeger’s long-range effect was to sand the roughness off traditional American music. His bands the Almanac Singers and, later, the far more influential Weavers “sang out,” voices thrilling with sincerity, eyeballs strained upward to the mountaintop. They elicited clapping along and feelings of unity. Through the folk music that leftist musicologists had failed to find among the actual folk, Seeger and those who imitated him carried audiences home: forward to a collectivist future of socialist realism, backward to an unsullied American past.
It was that kind of folk music, ironically, that turned out to have a kind of commercial appeal. Folk went pop, not Popular Front. Political shifts put the music through quick changes: after the real war, a cold war was declared; now the U.S. was 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 folk, stripped of its politics, got hot. In the 1950’s the genre established itself as a boutique alternative to the teen dance music that deejays called rock and roll. Folk was the collegiate style now strummed by guys in skinny suits and beatnicky gals perched on stools. Then, as the McCarthy terror began to recede, politics re-entered the music. Called “protest,” politics went pop now too.
Joan Baez was a protester. Her music sounded just the way leftists had always wished folk music sounded. She looked just the way they’d always wished folk singers looked. Peter, Paul & Mary looked and sang that way too. They took Pete 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. Folk music and dissent from capitalism had now reconnected — and become big business.
Hence the crisis routinely celebrated in rock history. It was all too 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, often brilliant and beautiful. He expressed visionary, democratic spirituality in the manner of a Walt Whitman. He hated business and politicians (his father was a businessman and politician who failed). His enthusiasms 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 loved and supported him 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.
But Guthrie had ears. Dylan had a voice. Not figuratively. Unfortunately for Pete Seeger, Dylan’s voice was not the voice of youth or 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. Nowadays Dylan is sometimes 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. It’s something else again. Everything that the folk revival had tried to purge from folk music poured back in, through Bob Dylan’s folk singing.
In that context, it’s worth dwelling on the fact that the all-important 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. 1930’s hillbilly radio, too, often lauded by folk-revival purists today, really just put 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 (maybe not for nothing, we’ll never know). That album delved, 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 plain.
In the lounge in the 1970-71 school year, we’d gobbled the folk movement alive. We equated musical authenticity with the millennium, FM-band rock an image of revolution both accomplished and ongoing. Folded by Dylan into the electric-blues revival, urban folk had morphed into the rock that Life magazine then called “new” and radio demographers have been trying, since the 1980’s, to get my generation to deem 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 we revered blues as in some way essentially black. I’m not saying we listened to a lot of 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 hoisted the 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– yet reserved debate for new releases by the white artists that we actually did listen to, spinning their albums on our cruddy lounge record player. In 1970-’71 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 — where 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 been named “roots.”
It’s worth recalling that by today’s roots standards, we worked a very narrow field. In ’70-’71 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. We knew the sound of pedal steel mainly from “Workingman’s Dead,” and it was a new sound to us, cool because inexplicable at first, psychedelia mixing with the worksong moods of our grade-school folk-singing. Roots reverence for Hank Williams, for example, came far later than many an aficionado roughly my age cares to remember today. Hank Williams was then, to us, just a late-night TV record-offer goof.
We’d seen “Easy Rider.” We’d heard rumors of “Okie from Muskogee.” Rednecks and their music were among our counterrevolutionary enemies.
It was black people we canonized. But not these black people. The ones who went to our school.
This school was very largely white, but there were black kids too, and ’70-’71 they abruptly became incomprehensible to us. Freaks wore t-shirts and flannel plaids and baggy jeans and dragged our heels around in boots, the dustbowl exploded in velvet and embroidery. The black kids started walking around on high platforms, wearing 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. The black kids were using new terms, in new speech patterns, that left us out.
And for all of their new, street-sounding language and attitude, for all of their racial solidarity and even possible separatism, they seemed strangely bourgeois to us: they didn’t seem to want to join our classless visionary company. They weren’t living in a post-revolutionary utopia. They seemed academically and socially ambitious. We let it all go. They were keeping their clothes and bodies clean and neat.
Most strange of all, they didn’t seem to revere the blues. So even as they became a strong presence in the lounge, freak reality had no place for the black kids. They became at once unreal and annoying.
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 mainly tolerated one another’s differences.
But the Jackson Five were just too much. We revered black music — just not this black music. The Jackson Five were new, and the black kids played them as incessantly as we played James Taylor. Some people today see all pop of that period as adorably “seventies,” but this was the actual seventies, and barely so, and the Jackson Five lacked that roots thing that we associated with blues; had hit singles on AM radio; were teenybop; 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 by that I mean: The Jackson Five seemed to us unblack.
So 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. 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 might enlighten them.
Trucking: This was a way of walking we’d learned from R. Crumb’s underground comics, in which a white character 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 had no conscious idea that the trucking walk had begun as an exaggerated swagger 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 racist grotesquerie. We responded viscerally to Crumb’s caustic, creepy take on psychedelia, cracking up helplessly while reading him wrecked, barely noticing that he was savaging our utopianism. We felt nothing but subversively and innocently spontaneous when for a minute or so at a time, self-charmed by our own goofiness, we trucked in a line of teen freaks down the street, weirding out the straights, an image of the permanent condition we imagined for those happy Haight-Ashburyans.
Now 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 stuff was 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:
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, stunned, mid-truck. She’d picked me out. Her eyes were angry, of course, but they were also shocked. She couldn’t believe I was doing what I was doing.
I too was shocked. I couldn’t believe she was using that 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? I don’t know. It doesn’t matter. Snagged by Patricia’s glare, I knew what counts about this whole, long story. I could feel it at that moment, literally feel it in my own physical posture. I didn’t have the language to describe it, but I could feel that by trucking to the Jacksons, I was performing a white parody of blackness. I was doing coon song in the lounge. 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, real, not real people.
I had to speed that awful 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 maybe sometimes still believe, 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. Really, everybody hung out there. I was a heedless, precociously arrogant, noisy boy hotly caught up in a lot of bad ideas, bad feelings, bad actions.
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 awful moment.
I meant Sure, why not, I get it, since I can’t deny it. Racism does pervade our society, after all. Yes, yes, I think you’ve hit on something here. Aren’t we all, in the end, infected with racism? The fascist state, the military-industrial complex? And we got brainwashed back in grade school by those Stephen Foster songs! . . . So I guess, you know, it really could be.
But in the absence of a human response, she’d already turned away, fed up. What a relief.
* * *
Soon I would run from the lounge. I would reject rock and start listening, for one thing, 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 get some of it. I was working my way backward through bop toward swing.
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 and listening instead to the 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 guess with the banjo I thought I was seeking white roots now — what I wanted my own roots to be. Yet there’s no instrument more fraught with racial complexity, with minstrelsy, than that stringed West-African drum the banjer, America’s instrument, as it’s called. The older and more traditional the style in which you play it, the more you’re only playing rock and roll.
Meanwhile something else was going 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, so rugged and authentic. In song after song (many of them Nashville hits), 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 a solitary distance into sagebrush horizons we’ll never see.
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 at home sweet home. In fever dreams like mine, way down upon the Swannee River, our music is forever recovering the lost places, anywhere but here, where everything was real once.