|Bob Thompson Music|
“I was born a poor black child.” So begins the Jerk, a movie about a very “white” person played by Steve Martin who goes on to some romantic and material success (for a while). What’s funny about this opening line is that it is obviously false ethnically, but culturally as well. The film cuts to Martin lamely trying to clap along with his singing family. (I'll leave alone whether or not the scene is racist.)
Whether culture and art, ethnicity and music, can be pulled apart is being debated. I will invent a statement and see if it has for me mitigating factors: White people should not play or in any way borrow from African-American-created music.
Martin discovers his rhythm when uber-square dance music from Lawrence Welk comes on the radio. His fingers start to snap and he marvels at his newly discovered potential. The other joke is the cliché that white people find salvation in music that is not their own. This was much like my father’s story, who was in a rural California town who was basically hit by jazz music like a tractor beam pulling the Enterprise onto a Vulcan planet. This was back in the Radio Days. That is why hearing that jazz is property and is by nature trespassed by a white presence is kind of heartbreaking.
Are their mitigating factors to white appropriation of African -American music, if any?
I understand the attitude of “hands off my body, my property, my art” as 100% valid. This is why I have conflicting feelings here. I am not comfortable with saying “art is entirely universal” and leaving it at that, although I hear an intentional universality coming out of Coltrane's horn on Love Supreme.
My father reported being the only white person at parties in the early 40s in a matter of fact way to me. This was part of the experience for my father, although the white taste for the "exoticism" of African-American culture has been ridiculed. From his frame of reference, it was freedom and the only way to get it.
Because of my experience with my dad, the appropriation issue is not just about art as a thing, but artists as people. Artists get a special pass from me, at least. Do artists, who many time seek refuge in the arts, have the same motivations as business people or enslavers? Are these intentions a mitigating factor? I feel so. The idea that white people’s intentions matter at all is rejected by some. In fact, the idea of good intentions is in itself is taken as offensive in its own right.
You could also make the musicological argument that appropriation is the currency of the creation of art. Jazz does have some white influences (although it’s a long history) on a song by song or sub-genre basis. I am not sure the Blues is a 100 percent African invention (musically) but it is an invention that is pretty much inseparable from what I understand as the African-American experience in Southern Delta. I am not sure what African music is so it's hard to know for me.
There is a difference between tending a garden and ripping out the flowers for your kitchen table.
And then there’s Bruce Willis, as his alter-ego "Bruno." Here he is in Little Richard / Louis Jordan mode!
I think there is a dichotomy between thievery and ignorance on one hand, and honor and respect on the other. Can appropriation be done well or badly, and is this a mitigating factor? I’d say yes. There is a 1 to 10 authenticity scale, and Bruce is holding up the 1 end of things quite well. Appropriation can be done technically badly or emotionally badly. There is a difference between tending a garden and ripping out the flowers for your kitchen table. Tom Waits I think succeeds in tending the garden. "Tom Waits" is sort of a persona (a mish-mash of awesome impulses and abilities) but I do think it is him. Or is gravel-voice "Tom Waits" another "Bruno"? I don't think so. Reverence and respect matter and I think mitigate appropriation. Does coming from the heart or "appearing to get it" matter? Or is turnabout fair play and white people have to "know their place" in the musical world.
Some jazz, but not all, created by African-American people that is so close to their collective story that a white person should not go near it. I hope I never hear Gwyneth Paltrow singing Strange Fruit. Can some African-American music be less separable from the African-American experience than others? I think the Afro-Jazz movement and Mingus suggests that to be the case. I think they are trying to create appropriation-proof music. As a white person am I in any position to judge what is the blackest music?
Another technical argument is that pure examples of any, especially white music, are hard to find. Many classical music composers were always stealing from “folk” music, which although not of a different ethnicity in all cases, was so in the sense of class. Gregorian Chants are white? Perhaps Nordic Folk Music is the safest bet?
The technical argument that “jazz is African-American music with European Harmonies” is true in a crude, a musicological point of view. As the son of a white jazz musician I’d like to have it both ways thank you very much.
Spenser Thompson shares anecdotes, music, and videos from Bob Thompson's music career plus thoughts on artists from Duke to Devo.