AllenLowe

Review of Turn Me Loose White Man, WSJ

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 ‘Turn Me Loose, White Man’ Review: How to Listen to American Music

An idiosyncratic project peers into the creative ferment before genres like jazz, blues and country fully diverged.


By Larry Blumenfeld

April 2, 2021 11:54 am ET

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As a saxophonist, composer and bandleader, Allen Lowe has recorded albums of impressive scope and ambition with musicians who span generations and communities. The unruly beauty of his music is grounded in tradition yet also consistently blurs styles and eras.

His approach is well stated in an introduction to his two-volume, self-published book “ ‘Turn Me Loose, White Man,’ or: Appropriating Culture: How to Listen to American Music, 1900-1960”: “Where does one start with American music, and where does one end? There are some obvious musical signposts . . . that serve well as beginnings,” he writes. “There are less clear endings, places that mark the discontinuation of styles, sound, and movements. Sometimes certain things seem to disappear, only to reappear as something else or something that seems like something else.” And, more than 200 pages later: “The sequence of musical events which drives studies like this are often lessons in why music is not history and history is not music.”

‘Turn Me Loose, White Man’

By Allen Lowe
Constant Sorrow, two volumes, 768 pages, $29.95 each
Two-book, 30-CD set, $175

Nevertheless, Mr. Lowe stays devoted to music history. Among his four previous books, “That Devilin’ Tune: A Jazz History, 1900-1950” formed an essential counterpoint (or counterpunch) to, say, Ken Burns’s PBS series “Jazz.” Mr. Lowe likes subtitles upon subtitles. His secondary one here—“How to Listen to American Music”—indicates not another pop-culture guidebook but rather a consideration of American music’s glorious tangle for listeners of both aural and moral sensitivity.

Is “Turn Me Loose, White Man” his treatise on 60 years of American music, plus a companion 30-CD boxed set? Or is it a lovingly curated recording project with the longest set of liner notes in history? Though these two volumes stand on their own, for Mr. Lowe the music and the analysis form a dialogue, an essential call and response, a set of philosophical arguments much like the commentary surrounding religious texts, “honed by a mixed sense of aesthetic worship and social consciousness” that, thankfully, never grows pious.



Mr. Lowe’s website biography asks “Who is Allen Lowe, and why is he doing all these projects and why have you never heard of him?” Yet he’s hardly unknown. Francis Davis devoted a chapter to him in his 1996 book “Bebop and Nothingness: Jazz and Pop at the End of the Century.” There, Mr. Lowe lamented not “finding a place” as a jazz musician, not conforming as either “a neoconservative like Wynton Marsalis or a postmodernist like John Zorn.” The truth is more complex. Mr. Lowe, who has lectured and performed at Jazz at Lincoln Center, of which Mr. Marsalis is managing and artistic director, knows he is both outsider and not. That fluidity, that refusal to accept false dichotomies, is one great strength of his work as a cultural historian.

All of which brings us to Mr. Lowe’s most potent subtitle, “Appropriating Culture.” “The making of American music is a febrile and contentious racial battleground,” writes cultural critic Greg Tate in another introduction. Mr. Lowe, he notes, digs into historical recordings that speak to musical vernaculars before those genres hardened into the “cages of formalized and racialized convention” now known as gospel, blues, jazz and country.

Into this battleground Mr. Lowe marches. His opening pages reveal the source of his book’s title: “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, in which an obviously-white singer,” portraying a black character working on the Mississippi River, “yells out ‘turn me loose, there, white man.’ ” For Mr. Lowe, this moment represents “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.’ ”

Mr. Lowe then considers pianist Ben Harney (1872-1938), a “major figure” whose compositions “established a commercial beachhead for ragtime” and who “presented as white” but was almost certainly not; he wonders how assumptions about Harney’s race framed interpretations of his music. Mr. Lowe also describes the reaction among collectors to the discovery of an 1894 recording of “Haul the Woodpile Down,” by a black musician named Charles Asbury, who died in obscurity in 1903: “He couldn’t be black, some insisted, because the way he sang was too formal, the delivery too ‘white’ ”—a “racist assumption about sound and inflection” that ignores Asbury’s exceptional banjo playing.

Mr. Lowe hears American music as “essentially a timeline of African Americans liberating themselves in sound, creating an alternative history to that which has been imposed on them.” He wishes to explore “an aesthetic merger” of black and white idioms, a musical give-and-take “in which blackness is clearly and profoundly victorious” but which “whiteness” survives by its “need to dominate,” absorbing and transmuting in genuinely creative ways that inspire further black innovation. Some may take issue with Mr. Lowe’s “assumption that a great deal, if not all, of American music is rooted in forms that derive in some way from Minstrelsy.” Yet the case he mounts, without condescension or apology and with a great deal of musical evidence, makes sense. As does his idea that “the strangeness of early jazz” has to do with “the slow and gradual removal of the minstrel mask from both white and black performers,” often revealing “an expression of perplexed, racial ambivalence, a sense that fantasy has replaced reality for so long that we no longer can determine precisely which is which.”

I agree with Mr. Lowe that the ascendance of the all-white Original Dixieland Jazz Band as the first jazz group to make bestselling, mass-marketed phonograph records was “a matter of white supremacy,” but disagree that the group was distinguished by “innate and consistent musicality.” I wince as he wanders into passages such as this: “Blacks stay, as usual, creatively just out of reach in terms of cultural originality and newness, one clear step ahead of their white followers, like runaway slaves.” Or when he rushes headlong into asserting that “African American arts are not, in their essence, political.” Yet the fascinating mass of music that Mr. Lowe gathers—and then discusses with ingenuity and force—persuades in both original and necessary ways.

Mr. Lowe celebrates obscure figures that connect musical dots. Whether or not Harmonica Frank (1908-1984) is, as Mr. Lowe claims, “one of the most significant American musicians of the 20th century,” his music does exhibit “a surface lightness of being” and “a series of profoundly telling musical gestures” that, yes, “predicts both Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan.” Mr. Lowe also draws a convincing line—via, among other things, a “rollicking yet very conservative gallop . . . creating a sense of accelerating tempo, even while the time remains unchanged,” and “uneven trills with uncertain tonality”—from pianist Speckled Red (1892-1973) to Thelonious Monk.

He writes with enlightening precision about famous musicians, too. Duke Ellington’s “Koko” is notable less for some monolithic aesthetic and more for “violating the norms of conventional expectation.” Jelly Roll Morton’s “Tiger Rag” evokes “a distant musical past through the surface of a porous musical present.” Fats Waller’s music sounds like the pianist is “looking at life from under a table, peeking out at the strange goings on.”

Without making too much of it, there is poignancy and more to the fact that Mr. Lowe was battling throat cancer as he wrote about “the life of black creativity and its struggle against the death knell of white power.” This book carries an urgency that befits both his own personal and our larger American moment. He gets cantankerous, even downright nasty, in response to lazy assumptions or incorrect facts put forth by music critics. Yet there’s a sweetness too, an earnestness—what Greil Marcus, writing about Mr. Lowe, identifies as a “mission” to honor the relationship “between people long dead and those listening to them now in disbelief that they could ever die.”

—Mr. Blumenfeld writes about jazz and Afro-Latin music for the Journal.

 

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Congrats, Allen.  I hope this gooses sales.

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Posted (edited)

On 4/2/2021 at 7:02 PM, mjzee said:

Congrats, Allen.  I hope this gooses sales.

I have sold so many since the review, my wife and I are working day and night to fill orders.

On 4/3/2021 at 8:04 PM, Captain Howdy said:

God bless him for using "wince" rather than "cringe."

and why might that be?

Edited by AllenLowe

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7 hours ago, Captain Howdy said:

Because whoever popularized the word cringe really meant wince but was too stupid to know it and thanks to all the mindless sheep who followed her example the language has become a little bit more debased.

Linguistically inclined, I checked several online sources, including the Cambridge dictionary  (trying to find a definition of the difference) but find that definitions of their meaning (of wince on the once hand and of the - in most cases - "informal use" of cringe on the other) are very much the same. I am aware of both words and their use and while I'd take your word for your reasoning, could it be that "the horse done left the barn" a long time ago?

 

Anyway, back to the topic, good to see that the review has had its effect. I am more than ever looking forward to receiving my copy of Part 2 of the book that accompanies the CD set.

 

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4 hours ago, Big Beat Steve said:

Linguistically inclined, I checked several online sources, including the Cambridge dictionary  (trying to find a definition of the difference) but find that definitions of their meaning (of wince on the once hand and of the - in most cases - "informal use" of cringe on the other) are very much the same. I am aware of both words and their use and while I'd take your word for your reasoning, could it be that "the horse done left the barn" a long time ago?

 

Anyway, back to the topic, good to see that the review has had its effect. I am more than ever looking forward to receiving my copy of Part 2 of the book that accompanies the CD set.

 

Let me check to make sure the book is in the queue - email me your address - allenlowe5@gmail.com

thanks

5 hours ago, Big Beat Steve said:

Linguistically inclined, I checked several online sources, including the Cambridge dictionary  (trying to find a definition of the difference) but find that definitions of their meaning (of wince on the once hand and of the - in most cases - "informal use" of cringe on the other) are very much the same. I am aware of both words and their use and while I'd take your word for your reasoning, could it be that "the horse done left the barn" a long time ago?

 

Anyway, back to the topic, good to see that the review has had its effect. I am more than ever looking forward to receiving my copy of Part 2 of the book that accompanies the CD set.

 

thanks, I was not aware. I shudder....to think of all the ways it has been misused.......

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24 minutes ago, Captain Howdy said:

A dog cringes when it expects to be beaten. A person winces when he sees the dog kicked but he doesn't cringe because he himself is not anticipating receiving a blow. The way cringe has come to be used recently is always in terms of feeling embarrassment for someone else, not the expectation of pain for one's self.

+1

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9 minutes ago, Captain Howdy said:

A dog cringes when it expects to be beaten. A person winces when he sees the dog kicked but he doesn't cringe because he himself is not anticipating receiving a blow. The way cringe has come to be used recently is always in terms of feeling embarrassment for someone else, not the expectation of pain for one's self.

Yes, embarrassment for someone else seems to be the common denominator, correctly or incorrectly. (The way I have heard/read this used) But AFAICS this cringing CAN include embarrassment in the sense of almost feeling pain because of this embarrassment. Haven't we all at one time or another had a feeling that what someone else does or says makes you so embarrassed as to literally cause you bodily pain? No actual pain, of course, but the facial expression is there. So it's a fine line between wincing and actually cringing (for/about someone else) ...

 

30 minutes ago, AllenLowe said:

Let me check to make sure the book is in the queue - email me your address - allenlowe5@gmail.com

Mail sent. Thanks a lot!

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I would say cringe betokens a bodily movement not just a facial one. Wince is facial more than bodily.

Hence the good Captain's dog cringes rather than winces.

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Posted (edited)

I should add that the passage he cites, much as I deeply appreciate that review, is not really cringe- or wince-worthy. I think he may have misunderstood.

Edited by AllenLowe

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10 hours ago, Captain Howdy said:

A dog cringes when it expects to be beaten. A person winces when he sees the dog kicked but he doesn't cringe because he himself is not anticipating receiving a blow. The way cringe has come to be used recently is always in terms of feeling embarrassment for someone else, not the expectation of pain for one's self.

Dogs have also been known to cringe when they sense the presence of EVIL!

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2 hours ago, sgcim said:

Dogs have also been known to cringe when they sense the presence of EVIL!

Dogs have been known to eat a motherfucker alive, just rip him up and eat him fresh.

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Posted (edited)

7 hours ago, Captain Howdy said:

Which is the stronger physical reaction, wince or cringe? A wince is generally confined to the face but perhaps can include the shoulders. Cringing involves the whole body in an attempt to protect its sensitive areas from blows. Now, which action is more appropriate to reading a dad joke online?

I can't think of any off the top of my head. I think if someone did something deeply embarrassing in my presence my reaction would be to turn away, to try to disassociate myself from him, to withdraw if possible; to the observer that might appear similar to cringing but is not motivated by the same emotion.

In the end it all depends on the extrovertness (or emotionalness? :g) of the person concerned.
But I think we are getting dangerously close to splitting hairs - not least of all because language (and its use) isn't totally static.
Now the cringe vs wince theme may be a pet peeve of yours but OTOH if such fine distinctions were drawn EVERYWHERE in the English language and its (presumed) correct use then you'd have a handful to take care of if you'd follow this through - including on this forum, e.g. its use of affected streetwise gibberish or group slang by some, etc. And talking about dogs, I have yet to see you step up and take offense at the use of the word "dog" to address PERSONS, for example. ^_^ So ... relax - please!

(My apologies to Allen ... ;))

 

Edited by Big Beat Steve

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On 4/2/2021 at 6:31 PM, AllenLowe said:

 ‘Turn Me Loose, White Man’ Review: How to Listen to American Music

 

An idiosyncratic project peers into the creative ferment before genres like jazz, blues and country fully diverged.

 

 

 

By Larry Blumenfeld

 

April 2, 2021 11:54 am ET

Congratulations Allen!

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Posted (edited)

On 4/7/2021 at 8:18 AM, Captain Howdy said:

A dog cringes when it expects to be beaten. A person winces when he sees the dog kicked but he doesn't cringe because he himself is not anticipating receiving a blow. The way cringe has come to be used recently is always in terms of feeling embarrassment for someone else, not the expectation of pain for one's self.

And here I thought Jimmy Buffett had a college degree. Is this the first or most damaging misuse?

Well now that's just the start
Of a well-deserved overdue binge
Meanwhile back in the city
Certain people are starting to cringe

 

Edited by Dan Gould

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5 hours ago, Captain Howdy said:

 

 

I don't see any indication he meant wince. Anyway, wince doesn't rhyme. :)

Excuse me but you wrote this:

"The way cringe has come to be used recently is always in terms of feeling embarrassment for someone else, not the expectation of pain for one's self."

In Buffett's couplet (hope I got that right) "certain people are starting (to feel embarrassment for someone else)."

If that is the wrong use of cringe as you've so clearly laid out with your dog getting beaten/people watching it happen examination, clearly Buffett needed to use the word "wince" and he needed to find a word other than "binge" to start this verse in his story.

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9 hours ago, Captain Howdy said:

For someone who claims to be linguistically inclined you don’t have much appreciation for the English language. That’s like saying you’re musically inclined but as far as you’re concerned the difference between A and A-sharp is splitting hairs. Splitting hairs is what gives language its richness. A wide variety of subtly different words allows a writer to choose which one expresses and describes best. If you read in a novel “She winced” it ought to mean something different that “She cringed.”

 

Anyway ... any way you look at it, actual use has run away from the definitions that you prefer that no doubt are correct by criteria agreed upon once upon a time but have become overly formulaic in the light of actual use. Not least of all because - as hinted at above - e.g. the degree of bodily reaction that you use as a criterion just isn't that rigidly applicable.  Language evolves over time (for better or worse, but it  does ...) Like it or not, "the horse done left the barn ...". But don't try to shoot me for it - I am just the messenger. ;)

"Nuff said" (on a totally different liguistic level). ^_^ And apologies to Allen again for the off-topicness.

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The correct expression is "THAT horse done left the barn".

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Posted (edited)

True, we are talking about a specific instance (and therefore horse). ;):tup
According to Google sources, some seem to disagree and use "the ..." in the same sense but I agree that, looking closer at it, this is not quite specific enough.

Edited by Big Beat Steve

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It should always be "That horse ..." because we are speaking of a particular circumstance/situation. "The horse ..." makes no sense especially since its not a situation of a singular "horse". The dog can escape his leash but only that horse can leave the barn.

"I wish Mosaic would put together a Bill Barron set, but given the state of their business and the CD market in general, that horse has left the barn."

:g

 

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54 minutes ago, Dan Gould said:

"I wish Mosaic would put together a Bill Barron set, but given the state of their business and the CD market in general, that horse has left the barn."

:g

 

The horse have done left that barn, indeed. So it has been beaten, no sense in deadening it.

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7 hours ago, Captain Howdy said:

But it's not wrong. There's no reason to believe he didn't mean "certain people are starting to (expect to be beaten)."

That's ludicrous.

Actually there is every reason to believe that he meant "certain people are starting to (feel embarrassment over his immature behavior)"

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Posted (edited)

boy, I go away for a few days and miss the whole seminar - we need S.I. Hayakawa. Better still - buy the book and CDs and then we'll talk.

Edited by AllenLowe

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18 hours ago, AllenLowe said:

boy, I go away for a few days and miss the whole seminar - we need S.I. Hayakawa. Better still - buy the book and CDs and then we'll talk.

All set to continue reading with Vol. 2 as soon as it hits my mailbox so I for one am rarin' to go.  ^_^

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10 hours ago, Captain Howdy said:

Ok, I re-read the lyrics and it looks like you're right. So?

Well I don't really care about your linguistic point, correct or not, but when I read it I immediately thought of those lyrics as an example so I had to point them out, which you denied, to which I felt compelled to respond.  

Anyway, "my job is too dutiful" and I must return to it. :g

 

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