AllenLowe

from my book, Turn Me Loose, White Man.....

30 posts in this topic

This is from the intro of my new book/reissue project Turn Me Loose White Man, and is printed here because there were some objections to the title:

"Is it important to clarify what I mean by the main title of this new collection and book, Turn Me Loose White Man? Given the rawness of our current political atmosphere, yes. And I have to admit I ran the title by a few trusted friends before deciding for certain to use it.

There is a recording, from 1902, which fits very neatly into what I would call the immediate pre-history of country music, by the white singing duo Cantrell and Williams, of a song called Mississippi River Song Tapioca. At one point in the tune the obviously-white singer - portraying a black character, and in the midst of warbling about working on the Mississippi River  amongst the “darkies” and other happy workers -  yells out "turn me loose, there, white man." It is a jarring moment, representing, I would say, a kind of transference of the desire by a white man for artistic freedom onto the 'other,' the black man, in the guise of demanding cultural/expressive liberation. "Set me free," the white singer seems to be demanding, "by making me as black as I am pretending to be." The call is clearly for cultural freedom, though the inescapable minstrel taunt of white men “exposing” black men for their “pretensions” of equality is also obvious. Less apparent is how singer and audience of the time perceived this call for action – was it simply a matter of comic silliness? Of contempt for the futility of any black notion of equality? Was it a stagey impersonation, regarded by the audience as being as good as the real thing but safer and more manageable as long as white people were in charge? Or was it just a good, fun, catchy phrase in the midst of a catchy tune?

 

Given how minstrelsy (not unlike current white representations of black expression in the way white people dress, move, and use the idea of hip-hop time and lyrics) represents a complex love/hate/fear view by white people of African Americans, this is a perfect example of imitation as a protective barrier of privilege. Black me up and I will be free, and then when I am done I will be really free (in other words, white). You have a white man portraying a black man, and the white man is not only in a position of power and privilege but is, ironically or not, expressing something that has historical resonance because it is being said at a time in American life when not only is black music  struggling to overcome white hegemony, but Black America is doing same in a political and social sense.

 

To me this, for the white singer, represents a different kind of double consciousness, though we have no idea if the white man who is singing has any sense of the deeper meaning of the gesture or of the nastiness of the irony involved. Minstrels were actors and impersonators, yes, but their manner betrayed a sly - if racist - commentary on their actions, a simultaneous, social call and response, as though they were saying, or, really, being, one thing while meaning another, as part of a "secret" yet openly exposed pact with their equally racist audience. And yet - they were smart enough to create enough distance between their words and implied actions to allow for what politicians now call “plausible deniability:” the singer in this never says explicitly that he is portraying the black character as deluded; his words indicate the opposite. There is no obvious and audible proof, in the recording itself, that this exists in a false and racist reality; in order to know that, you have to extrapolate from not only the whole method of minstrelsy but also from the mass conditions of African Americans at the time – something of which many white people were of no doubt aware, but which probably just seemed to most of them like the natural state of things in the post-Adam and Eve world.  If in today’s America millions of white folks can say, as they have, that white people are as discriminated against as black people are (or more so, according to some polls), you can imagine how less evolved the political landscape was 120 years ago. And at the time this was recorded  there was no consensus, among white people, that minstrelsy was intrinsically evil; among black people, yes, but not necessarily among black entertainers, thousands of whom made a  professional living in the minstrel field . Hence deniability, plausible or not.

 

As for, finally, the title of this book and of this collection, the history of American music, to my ears, is essentially a timeline of African Americans liberating themselves in sound, creating an alternative history to that which has been imposed on them. As a title and reference it is meant to evoke the not-so-straightforward way in which this has been achieved."
 

 

 

 

 

 

Edited by AllenLowe

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Sounds interesting, Allen.  I think I understand what you're saying and why you've chosen that title. 

Even so, you might want to be prepared for some blowback if you use it.   Seems like knee-jerk reactions are almost inevitable. 

Then again, that may not matter to you.  Sometimes a "controversial" title is exactly what's needed.

 

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Anything that heightens awareness of 19th Century American Mentalities is useful at this point in the 21st Century, imo.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
11 minutes ago, HutchFan said:

Even so, you might want to be prepared for some blowback if you use it.   Seems like knee-jerk reactions are almost inevitable. 

Then again, that may not matter to you.  Sometimes a "controversial" title is exactly what's needed.

 

Never mind the blowback ... probably by people who are unable or unwilling to approach historical facts in the context of their times.

I'll be looking forward to this opus that I have preordered.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
4 hours ago, HutchFan said:

Sounds interesting, Allen.  I think I understand what you're saying and why you've chosen that title. 

Even so, you might want to be prepared for some blowback if you use it.   Seems like knee-jerk reactions are almost inevitable. 

Then again, that may not matter to you.  Sometimes a "controversial" title is exactly what's needed.

 

I am ready, definitely, for a bit of flack, but I am currently taking some steps to possibly mitigate criticism (can't say much now, but it has to to with someone who is considering doing the introduction).

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
10 hours ago, AllenLowe said:

portraying a black character

 

Is this the song in question? If so, what is its relation to the one below?

I confess neither of these songs makes much sense to me, but if these are two versions by the same artists, C&W seem to be quoting snippets of dialogue you might hear around the docks, from blacks and whites. Why do you assume C&W are pretending to be black? The song begins with references to darkies and niggers, and the only time he sounds black is when he says "turn me loose, white man". 

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
12 hours ago, AllenLowe said:

I am ready, definitely, for a bit of flack, but I am currently taking some steps to possibly mitigate criticism (can't say much now, but it has to to with someone who is considering doing the introduction).

Stanley Crouch?

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Allen, I believe in this passage you're overthinking this:

"At one point in the tune the obviously-white singer - portraying a black character, and in the midst of warbling about working on the Mississippi River  amongst the “darkies” and other happy workers -  yells out "turn me loose, there, white man." It is a jarring moment, representing, I would say, a kind of transference of the desire by a white man for artistic freedom onto the 'other,' the black man, in the guise of demanding cultural/expressive liberation. "Set me free," the white singer seems to be demanding, "by making me as black as I am pretending to be." The call is clearly for cultural freedom, though the inescapable minstrel taunt of white men “exposing” black men for their “pretensions” of equality is also obvious. Less apparent is how singer and audience of the time perceived this call for action – was it simply a matter of comic silliness?

A "call for cultural freedom" of the part of the white performers? Wading into this bucket of tapicoa for a possible overthink myself, I would say that it's a playful act of (the dreaded phrase) cultural appropriation. That is, the white singer, by voicing the black character's imagined words of protest, in effect takes ownership of/domesticates them. One could say that there's a certain boldness in the singer's folding those words into the ditty, but isn't that essentially defused by the singer's use of them in a "that's entertainment, folks" setting. Further, I think that the act of domestication that seems to me to be taking place here would be at once amusing and soothing to the typical white audience of the time  along "even in their uppity moments these folks are (or ought to be) under our control/belong to us." 

Hey, deep thinkers, how about this? It's from my new book "Take Me To the Mikvah, Mama."

 

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Overthinking it? Maybe it's thought just right.

Rarer than the proverbial hen's teeth is the Caucasian-American Popular Musical Performer who at some point doesn't attempt to earn some/more/any vague-yet-understood "credibility" by referencing African-American expression, either overtly or indirectly, naturally or otherwise. And rarer still are the ones who do so and display some real empathy towards what it is that is being expressed. Especially in the post-Elvis error, white people seem to go out of their ways to prove that they're not "too/that white".

But - how much whiter can you be than pretending that your whiteness can be wished away, how much of a superiority do you have to assume to think that that can be done? Or to not recognize that the need to wish that it could be is a surefire sign that something is wrong with this culture, something that is not recent, and something that may very well be built into its DNA? And if it IS in the cultural DNA, what is the best/most appropriate response for all involved? And is that best response going to be the most honest response?

Overthinking it? Maybe it's thought just right.

 

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Is the singer  here merely "referencing  [this particular piece of] African-American expression" or, as it seems to me, in effect domesticating/defusing/ even taking ownership of it.

BTW, I don't at all get, in this performance, yours and Allen's notion that the performer is "pretending that [his] whiteness can be wished away." Rather, I think he's using that phrase in the name of momentary dramatic authenticity. Given that black laborers down at the docks scene, he just wants to make things sound real. 

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I've not yet looked at the clip and/but am merely commenting on Allen's observations on it, which ring wholly true to me as a general cultural critique quite apart from any one specific source.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
4 hours ago, Larry Kart said:

Is the singer  here merely "referencing  [this particular piece of] African-American expression" or, as it seems to me, in effect domesticating/defusing/ even taking ownership of it.

BTW, I don't at all get, in this performance, yours and Allen's notion that the performer is "pretending that [his] whiteness can be wished away." Rather, I think he's using that phrase in the name of momentary dramatic authenticity. Given that black laborers down at the docks scene, he just wants to make things sound real. 

I think he's doing both; the white working working class audience for this music when it was presented as Minstrelsy is both looking for the real thing and for assurance that it's all a pose and not a threat. So yes, there is momentary authenticity, and it's part of a pact between audience and performer - and the performer wants to be 'real,' authentic, and thinks that as a white guy he can do it better than a black performer. This was very much part of the psychology of the pose. But his whiteness can and is wished away after the performance when he goes back to existing as the ultimate superior being, the White Man.

15 hours ago, Captain Howdy said:

 

Is this the song in question? If so, what is its relation to the one below?

I confess neither of these songs makes much sense to me, but if these are two versions by the same artists, C&W seem to be quoting snippets of dialogue you might hear around the docks, from blacks and whites. Why do you assume C&W are pretending to be black? The song begins with references to darkies and niggers, and the only time he sounds black is when he says "turn me loose, white man". 

the assumption of blackness is typical of the Minstrel pose, as this is  - and the reference to darkies, etc is considered to be, as it is today, insider terminology.

Edited by AllenLowe

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Allen: In this sentence -- "I think he's doing both; the white working working class audience for this music when it was presented as Minstrelsy is both looking for the real thing and for assurance that it's all a pose and not a threat." -- what is the referent for "it's"? "The real thing"? If it's all a "pose" though -- and a pose on whose part? -- how can it also be the real thing? In any case, I don't get "and thinks that as a white guy he can do it better than a black performer." If a black performer were doing it, the whole shebang would be other -- not necessarily better but other.

I refer you to the link I posted above to the  satirical "Yiddisher Charleston," which popular recording (itself a kind of minstrelsy?) clearly was aimed at and intended to amuse an immigrant Jewish audience of the time. As it happens, a  Jewish psychoanalyst I once knew was, in his salad days as a youngish shrink at St. Elizabeth's, assigned (this was circa 1946)  to deal with the recently incarcerated and rabidly anti-Semitic Ezra Pound. At one point, Pound performed the "Yiddisher Charleston" for him, in dialect and hopping about in a dance that was replete with exaggerated would-be comic  "Jewish" gestures. One feels safe in assuming that the point of Pound's performance was not that he could do the song "better" than the actual Jewish performers who made the recording but to do something "other" -- something that was aimed at making the Jewish doctor who was seeing him every day feel angry or uncomfortable. IIRC, my friend the psychoanalyst said that instead he found the whole thing kind of goofy, sad, and amusing,

 

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

the thing is that, relative to Pound's dance, things were way different on the Minstrel stage and for the Minstrel audience. The audience believed that the minstrel act was authentically "black," not different.  And the fact that it was a pose AND the real thing was part of the understanding between audience and performer  -  I know it seems odd and contradictory but this was kind of the white version of double consciousness. Things like Pound's performance were just part of a different world than that of the minstrel. Audiences saw some of the minstrel performance as parody of blackness, but other parts as "real," the real way in which black performers moved, played instruments, and sang. That's just the way it was - though sometimes the performance was, from not just contemporary accounts, but also from scripts and songs  - actually closely based on black folklore. There's a ton of literature on this. I know it sounds odd, but it's what makes the whole minstrel thing so complicated. The white working class audience found minstrelsy to be a safe form of rebellion against straight society, and used these black characters as a way to mediate that rebellion; the fact that the performers were really white protected the audience from any sense that, in admiring the performance, they were violating the social norm of white superiority. It's not unlike racist white kids embracing hip hop.

Edited by AllenLowe

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Or Colonel Tom's Elvis. Or Elvis himself, when you get right down to it.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
13 hours ago, JSngry said:

Or Colonel Tom's Elvis. Or Elvis himself, when you get right down to it.

possibly, though I think Elvis' relationship to black vernacular music was, in many ways, the next step. Or a real a continuation - check out a white hillbilly performer named Herschel Brown.

Edited by AllenLowe

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Next step on the same path, yes. Same root mentality, though, imo.

Have you (or anybody else) seem Yes Sir, Mr. Bones?

https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0044222/

Clips are on YouTube, maybe even the whole thing. I'd post some here, but

There are both black and blackface minstrels in the show, seriously virtuosic chops are on display by all, and ambiguity (intentionally and otherwise) is totally the order of the day within the context of the actual show. The scenes that open and close the movie, though. are stomach-turning, at best.

Anybody who can answer all the questions it raises by the time it's over has a better grasp of humanity than I do.

Suffice it to say that we dream (or once dreamt) of a "post-racial" America..

Well, good luck on that.

 

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
31 minutes ago, JSngry said:

Next step on the same path, yes. Same root mentality, though, imo.

Have you (or anybody else) seem Yes Sir, Mr. Bones?

https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0044222/

Clips are on YouTube, maybe even the whole thing. I'd post some here, but

There are both black and blackface minstrels in the show, seriously virtuosic chops are on display by all, and ambiguity (intentionally and otherwise) is totally the order of the day within the context of the actual show. The scenes that open and close the movie, though. are stomach-turning, at best.

Anybody who can answer all the questions it raises by the time it's over has a better grasp of humanity than I do.

Suffice it to say that we dream (or once dreamt) of a "post-racial" America..

Well, good luck on that.

 

imdb review:

Black Face has to be some of the most entertaining comedy of all time. The traveling Minstrel Shows of yesteryear were legendary for their performances. Thank to the likes of Cotton Watts on screen we haven't lost just a great art form.

Watch it and you'll be transported to a simpler and more peaceful time in America. Too bad they don't make these anymore. Great performances, funny, good tap and slide step. I was lucky enough to find it on dvd in the Showtime USA vol 2 collection.

So grab yourself some fried chicken and settle in for a good show!!

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
10 minutes ago, Captain Howdy said:

imdb review:

Black Face has to be some of the most entertaining comedy of all time. The traveling Minstrel Shows of yesteryear were legendary for their performances. Thank to the likes of Cotton Watts on screen we haven't lost just a great art form.

Watch it and you'll be transported to a simpler and more peaceful time in America. Too bad they don't make these anymore. Great performances, funny, good tap and slide step. I was lucky enough to find it on dvd in the Showtime USA vol 2 collection.

So grab yourself some fried chicken and settle in for a good show!!

Holy shit. Ugh!

Are they being ironic?!?!

 

Edited by HutchFan

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

One never knows...

But besides Cotton Watts (whose performance is as vile as it is brilliant, raising the question of can the two qualities ever be separated, and if not, then perhaps that is just who we are, so....sober up, America, this ain't no party...) there's Emmett Miller, Scatman Carouthers, and Brother Bones, and....if nothing else, you see some classic bits and jokes that no doubted pre-date vaudeville and that would be "funny" without all the trappings...yet it was the trappings that enabled them to be created in the first place, and to hang in there long enough to be released down stream.

Turn me loose, White Man, indeed. Turn US loose, all of us.

Speaking of Emmett Miller, this is a bit of a mind-blowing CD, nothing like I was expecting:

hqdefault.jpg

 

 

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I bet I'm the only person here who's actually been in a minstrel show.  I wasn't in Blackface though-- I was the interlocutor.  

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
11 minutes ago, medjuck said:

I bet I'm the only person here who's actually been in a minstrel show.  I wasn't in Blackface though-- I was the interlocutor.  

Do tell...please!

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

64 years ago I was in junior high and the principal of my school organized a minstrel show.  This was in a city in Eastern Canada of about 15,000 people in which there were about 5 Black families.  There was a tradition of minstrel  shows there with the local Y's Mens Club doing a yearly one called The Smokey Mokes. (It included at least one Black member who performed in Black face. ) 

IIIRC ours  was a traditional minstrel show with a large chorus singing old songs of the kind barbershop quartets might sing. Seated in the front were myself in the center with other students in Black face on both sides of me doing old bad jokes. 

I don't think we thought of it as having anything to do with actual Negroes (as we would have called them at the time) but rather as referencing some fictional fantasy world.

It didn't make much of an impression on me at the time and I don't remember any of the jokes though I do remember some of the songs. (e.g. I'll Take You Home Again Kathleen.) 

BTW the most famous person from my home town was local hero Willie O'Ree-- the first  Black man to play in the NHL.

I wish I knew more about the history of Minstrel Shows; especially Black Minstrel Shows.  

It now seems to me that  there is often (maybe always) some condescension in the appropriation of  language and tropes from another culture even in, for example, many of the lyrics of Hoagy Carmichael.   But taken to the extremes it would mean that non-Jews shouldn't use  the word "chutzpah".  

 

 

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I saw an interesting(enough) made-for-TV (CBS) movie called "Minstrel Man", starring Glenn Turman.

 

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
11 hours ago, medjuck said:

I bet I'm the only person here who's actually been in a minstrel show.  I wasn't in Blackface though-- I was the interlocutor.  

Does that mean the rest of the cast was in blackface?

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Please sign in to comment

You will be able to leave a comment after signing in



Sign In Now

  • Recently Browsing   0 members

    No registered users viewing this page.