Ed Driscoll

Keeping It Unreal

In a review of Faking It: The Quest For Authenticity In Popular Music by Hugh Barker and Yuval Taylor appearing in England’s self-proclaimed socialist New Statesman, Jeff Sharlet argues that “all pop musicians are fakes“:

Leadbelly, Barker and Taylor reveal, was by necessity a master of “faking it”, a sophisticated musician of cosmopolitan taste limited to a repertoire of “Negro” songs and told by his manager to perform in prison garb. That manager was John Lomax, one of the early 20th-century giants of what has come to be known as “roots music”. “The music that was, for Lomax, the most authentic,” write the authors, “the most black, the most free from ‘white influence’, was the most primitive.” That doesn’t mean Leadbelly was primitive, only that Lomax and, decades later, Cobain decided to believe that he was, the better to break the bonds of artificiality they felt modernity and celebrity imposed. Leadbelly was a tool. This shifty truth comes to us by way not of postmodernism, but of old-timey Marxist analysis. In 1937, the novelist Richard Wright, profiling Leadbelly for the Daily Worker, declared his coerced performances “one of the greatest cultural swindles in history”.

But that’s not quite right, either. Wright recognised Lomax’s manipulation of Leadbelly (who later successfully sued Lomax), but he assumed there was a genuine Leadbelly behind the music, a real black expression minstrel-ised by the white man. In fact, many of Leadbelly’s songs came from white folks, who’d learned them from black musicians, who’d composed them with African inflections as reinterpreted by white musicians eager to add “floating” rhythms to the marching beat of Scots-Irish reels. The strongest argument of Faking It is for the endless “miscegenation” of music. Great popular music is always a collage of cultures, while the quest for authenticity all too often functions as a means of policing racial boundaries.

Consider the case of Mississippi John Hurt, the subject of the book’s longest and most powerful essay. First, there’s his name: Mississippi was an add-on from the record company. Then there’s his reputation as a patriarch of the Delta blues: Hurt wasn’t from the Mississippi Delta and he insisted he wasn’t a blues musician. And then there is the problem of his blackness, thought by the white fans who rediscovered him in the 1960s to be pure and profound (“Uncle Remus come to life,” write the authors). When Hurt was “discovered” the first time, he was performing for black and white audiences backed by a white fiddler and a white guitar player who also happened to be the local sheriff. He recorded blues because the record company insisted he do so. Meanwhile, Jimmie Rodgers, a white musician who happened to be a bluesman, recorded what came to be known as “country” music because the blues were reserved by the market for black men. One more twist: when Harry Smith included two of Hurt’s songs on his great Smithsonian Folk Anthology, most listeners mistook the black musician for a white hillbilly.

The term “folk” itself presents more problems. Until 1949, country music was simply “folk”, as was much “black” music. Racism was the centrifuge that separated them: Henry Ford, for instance, poured money into a campaign to promote square-dancing as a form of authentic (read: white and Protestant) Americanism. One of the pioneering producers of “old-time” music in the early 20th century, Ralph Peer, later boasted: “I invented the hillbilly and n***** stuff.”

The weakness of Faking It, otherwise a fascinating and nimble investigation of pop’s paradoxes, is its failure to explore the political implications to which it so often points.

The leftwing readers of The New Statesman might not like the territory it explores, but that topic was covered extensively in this article on Pete Seeger by Howard Husock in a 2005 issue of City Journal, which dovetails surprisingly well with Sharlet’s essay.

(Via Maggie’s Farm.)