From a Metaphysical, Supernatural, Universal Point of View
by Randall E. Auxier
I want to believe. Yeah, right, me, Mulder, and Pollyanna. But if you look closely at this piece of sheet music, you’ll see the scruples. “The First Successful Blues Published” and “The Most Widely Known Ragtime Composition.” The first claim is surely true, but it isn’t much of a claim. Just as hip hop started in the streets a hundred years later, blues wasn’t exactly made to be “published.” But the hood has always been the hood, whether it’s Bedford Stuy or South Central or North St. Louis. Stackalee and Billy Lyon, and Frankie and Albert came from the latter hood, where a Handy-man collected their sounds. The term “ragtime” was widely abused when this was printed.
When was that? I don’t know exactly the year on this piece of sheet music, but it’s from “Pace and Handy” (1912-1920), and it says “New York City,” which narrows it further: 1917-1920. Whether it was W.C. Handy or Harry Pace who insisted on the careful wording we’ll never know, but the more scrupulous member of that pair was Pace, a student and business partner of W.E.B. DuBois, and someone with an elevated and informed sense of race consciousness. He would go on into the record business, notably founding the legendary Black Swan label and creating the the market for what was called “race records.” To get your hands on an early Black Swan disk today, you’ll have to pay. Pace (by far the younger partner) and Handy split in 1920 over some of Handy’s “business practices.” Handy said it was amicable. I can’t find anything Pace had to say about it.
The following is an inference: Handy actively courted the white musicians and audiences, and he popularized blues in the white market. Handy said that it was hard to interest black musicians in his sheet music. There is a reason for it. Handy’s arrangements and original compositions aren’t really “blues” and they aren’t “ragtime” at all. They come closer to jazz. The theoretical sophistication and the level of self-conscious experimentation in Handy’s music really does descend from classical and Sousa-style band music, but it aimed to capture the popular (read “white”) ear and move the popular (read “white”) ass. He says:
The one-step and other dances had been done to the tempo of Memphis Blues…. When St Louis Blues was written the tango was in vogue. I tricked the dancers by arranging a tango introduction, breaking abruptly into a low-down blues. My eyes swept the floor anxiously, then suddenly I saw lightning strike. The dancers seemed electrified. Something within them came suddenly to life. An instinct that wanted so much to live, to fling its arms to spread joy, took them by the heels. (it’s from Wikipedia.)
Dancing to the blues? I think not. Meanwhile, Handy treated the blues as a wonderful but primitive musical form and wanted to theorize it, “raise it up” and use its characteristic moves for something “higher” (read something “for whites”). His “low-down” blues aren’t very very “down,” and they aren’t “low” at all. Handy was always more popular among whites than among blacks, and I’m guessing Pace and Handy were having a disagreement over marketing and, for lack of a better word, authenticity. That word “successful” is a closely chosen one, isn’t it? Successful to whom, pray tell?
And that brings me to my point. In Act Like You Know, Crispin Sartwell discusses how difficult it is for white people to become conscious of their own perspective, and especially of its effect as it spreads to and through popular culture. The white folk don’t know that Handy is the “Father of the Blues” only because they ordained him (especially his friend Boss Crump). And they ordained him because he played to them. And he played to them because he was disinclined, as a “good “businessman, to get slowed down by questions of authenticity or purity. He wanted “success,” by the dominant standard. It’s right there, in shades of brown, on the music. People (read “whites”) loved him. He took that to the bank. Similar stories can be told about Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Jimi Hendrix, and Michael Jackson (the “King of Pop,” I hear). Madison Avenue loves labels. On the other side of the ledger is the African American writer or player or singer who never had much time for white folks. Think of Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, Bootsy Collins, Tupac Shakur (if you look past the Madonna thing, and she’s admittedly not your typical suburban white girl, even if she’s not quite from the hood).
Authenticity issues seem perpetual and intractable. In the book that made him famous, Blues People, LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka) says he chose to examine the problem of race through music because in music you find the microcosm of the whole history of race. And he argues, astonishingly, that the African Americans are “a New Race.” It is unprecedented in world history to have a “New Race,” and a strictly North American phenomenon. It happened for a number of complicated reasons. But that New Race produces from its experience a continual outpouring of music (and art and culture) that can always be taken to New York and packaged for the unconscious among us.
Who are these unconscious ones? Well, they are also a new race in a derivative sense. Having devised and enforced the economic, political, and social conditions that gave rise to the real New Race, and drowning in the bad faith that grows from denying they did anything wrong, they actively cast African Americans in the role of a “natural” people, a “particular people,” and a deeply “physical people.” And then they envy this projection, from self-hatred, or so goes the story Sartwell tells. Whiteness is a mass hallucination. Meanwhile, those who must bear the consequences of the deluded mass cannot seem to help the unconscious ones see what they are doing. In treating The Other as physical, we (whites) become metaphysical beings by complement. By treating The Other as natural, we claim supernatural standing. By insisting upon the particularity, even the idiosyncratic individuality of perspective (and hence every black theory is “just a story,” and every story an autobiography), we (whites) claim universality for our pet theories and perspectives. We unconsciously make ourselves the standard and then promptly forget about it, saying “I’m not a racist) (i.e., I like physical, natural, particular people, so long as I can the standard), and “some of my best friends are black” (meaning, in truth, “I don’t go to the hood, but I like being seen in public, white, places with my black friends”).
But here’s the thing: it sucks to be a metaphysical, supernatural, universal being, especially when you want to sing and dance too. Check out the dude on Jerry Lee‘s coattail through the middle of this vid. (beginning about 1:35). Watch him try to find two and four. The boy has become physical, natural, and particular, no? Well, it’s a little bit unnatural to him I guess. I would bet my boots he thinks Civil War monuments ought to be preserved. So I suppose he found his metaphysics when the music stopped.
Jones and Sartwell both say that they key characteristic of life between slaves and masters was the prohibition of communication. Slaves were forbidden to know what their masters meant, but were commanded to act of the words, as if they came from on high. Masters pretended not to see the humanity of the slaves and could not show compassion or any other core human connection. To do so would be to admit the deep sin involved in slavery. So, the slaves were bodies, ciphers, signs, not persons. The masters were not to be treated as mere persons by the slaves, even the house slaves. 350 years of that can create some serious social pathologies, all around. How can anyone be authentic unless deep communication is possible? And how is it possible? Let’s ask this guy.