How we view matters of race is inevitably measured by how we grew up. Which in turn influences how we reckon with cultural change. I think the ambivalent history of white responses to black music plays out in our own time through our hesitant responses to Black Lives Matter.
Reflecting the tenor of these times, Dr. Seuss Enterprises—publisher of all those stories we grew up with and which kids still read—recently saw fit to withdraw two of the lesser known books from further publication. You probably know the story, some of which is recounted here by Benjamin Wallace-Wells. He reflects on the ironies and absurdities of the so-called cancel culture and its response to the calls for black justice. Conservative media jumped all over the books’ withdrawal. But the elites dug themselves into a typical hole by their defensive, uncertain responses. The Wells piece is well worth a read.
The ambivalence of white American culture to jazz, for instance, was always part of the picture when I was growing up in the ‘50s (see Jive-Colored Glasses). And the whitening of black jazz started from the beginning, with the Original Dixieland Jazz Band in 19l7. In a strange progression, black music was accepted as the ur-source even while white and black performers bantered about black culture. Bing Crosby, who did a lot for jazz, is a case in point. He recorded “Mississippi Mud” with the great Bix Beiderbecke in 1928.
They don’t need no band,
They keep time by clappin’ their hand.
Just as happy as a cow chewin’ on her cud
When the darkies beat their feet on the Mississippi mud.
Later on, “darkies” was changed to “people” in the many recordings that followed. I had an old 78-rpm disk of this, along with other such period pieces that generally functioned as white entertainment with an overtone of genial mockery. “Novelty” (comedy) records were popular in early jazz; Jelly Roll Morton made several. Blacks put up with this until the ‘60s when musical standards for jazz changed along with the culture. Now, ironically, most every pop singer sings in “black-voice.”
Walt Disney’s movie Dumbo (1941) featured the singing crows in full black-voice which everyone loved. Disney to its credit has kept these scenes while adding a disclaimer. The funny animated cartoons we grew up with featured racialized characters in abundance. “Race records” was the name for recorded black music until the early ‘50s. I had several orange vinyl 45-rpm discs, which RCA Victor used to signify R&B type black music—color-coded marketing.
A recent book, Sittin’ In by Jeff Gold, is a wonderful archive of “black-and-white souvenir photographs and memorabilia that bring to life the renowned jazz nightclubs of the 1940s and 1950s.” The notable thing here is the mixing of black and white patrons two decades before the Civil Rights movement and while Jim Crow laws were still rampant.
The cultural power of black music has always been to accommodate both protest and reconciliation to some common values. Our cancel culture denies this power, and the music has become commoditized and politicized in recent years. Yet it still informs much of what we listen to.