Chapter OneShadow and Act
American Popular Music and the Absent Black Presence
The body was an indispensable component of musical performance until the arrival of sound recording in the early part of the twentieth century. In essence, the representation of live music as sound object, stored on prefabricated discs and mechanically reproduced on phonographs, meant that the social enjoyment of music no longer required a physical body in the room playing an instrument or singing a song. The dissemination of new songs in the popular music industry gradually segued away from sheet music into the new medium of phonograph recordings and later into radio. As these gradually penetrated both upper- and middle-class urban homes and later working-class homes as well, two things in particular became increasingly true. The first is that these technologies dramatically transformed the way that vernacular styles of music were consumed in rural communities, while also allowing music produced by the few to be shared by the many; phonograph records meant music was able to be broadly disseminated and enjoyed outside socially or racially segregated communities. The second thing is that technology would set the circumstances that made possible a distancing of black music from its socio-cultural origins in a way that would allow it to be claimed as cultural property by others, something that had rarely happened in the social history of American music.
In effect, the advent of recorded sound allowed for the presence of black people and black bodies to become dispensable in the consumption of styles of music with which they were intimately associated, and whose primary creative impulses came from black aesthetic practices. This became pointedly the case with early recordings of jazz, the first major music genre to emerge in the age of popular recording. The Original Dixieland Jazz Band, a group of white musicians who recorded their first sides in New York City in 1917, claimed authorship of the music when many people outside New Orleans had never heard of it. It is true that these musicians helped to open the commercial market for the music, but like later white musicians who adopted jazz and other black styles of music and made them available to a broader audience, a tension was nonetheless created between embracing an invigorating Africanist presence and the simultaneous need to erase it, between a desire to retain the broad outlines of a uniquely characteristic cultural production but deny its deep rootedness in the culture of African Americans. The historical love of black music by whites in the United States has always been troubled by the fact of blackness itself, by "the trauma provoked by the introduction of the black body into white space." In the century before jazz's rise to prominence, minstrelsy performance practice and the reproduction of caricatures of black people on the covers of sheet music represented perhaps the first example of this ambivalence in popular music in that it erased, appropriated, and (re)presented a kind of faux black subjectivity for mainstream consumption. Neither the white minstrel in blackface nor white minstrel songs of the day offered authentic renderings of black music or black culture, but rather signified upon black subjectivities as absent presences. Owing to the dominance of minstrel and coon songs in popular music in the latter decades of the nineteenth century and the early years of the twentieth, these kinds of representations of African Americans in popular culture became suddenly ubiquitous, a startling phenomenon given the estranged status of black people in the broader society. Physical representation of black bodies in popular music in the late 1800s to the early 1920s arguably begins the cultural policing of black bodies through the gaze of whiteness, which would be critical to the erection of post-Reconstruction black codes and Jim Crow laws that erased or severely restricted the presence of black bodies in white space.
Minstrelsy practice required a body at the level of performance, but not a black one; rather, it called for the representation of blackness constructed in the white American racial imagination of the time. After the Civil War, black male performers who began to access the entertainment industry in minstrel troupes, and they did so in large numbers, were required to do so in blackface since the black mask conformed to by now deeply embedded social stereotypes of black masculine subjectivity. Sheet music, which also required only faux black bodies, displayed grotesque caricatures of black people that were intended to provoke any range of affective responses, none of them generous and some clearly malicious as the Civil War approached and the prospect of thousands of freed black slaves became palpable. Images such as T. D. Rice's countrified southern character Jim Crow or the buffoonish northern dandy used for the cover of George Washington Dixon's composition Zip Coon were nonetheless fairly benign compared to the vile images deployed on covers of much sheet music which had appeared by mid-century. A particularly egregious example was the cover for coon shouter May Irvin's Broadway hit "The Bully Song," performed in 1895 for The Widow Jones, and which depicts a black male figure that can only be described as bestial, garishly dressed in ill-fitting clothing with huge red lips, hairy oversized hands, and wildly crazed eyes. The unsettling effect of the caricature was finished off by an open straight razor in his right hand. The depiction is made powerful by the aggregation of its parts, and suggests the particularly vicious nature of racial representation of blacks prior to and for decades following Reconstruction, as black claims to socio-economic and political enfranchisement increased. Such images of black people transfigured through the ideological racial imaginings of whites into absurd caricatures would create an enormous complex of products from soap to pancake mix and contribute to a culture of "commodity racism" that has been as integral to the development of representational practices in popular culture as black music has been to the formation of popular music practices. The uses of black male bodies in particular suggest the ways in which "white America has made an art of manipulating the images of black men to suit social, political, and economic agendas that share the goal of containing African American men."
Ralph Ellison, in his 1958 article "Change the Joke and Slip the Yoke," suggests that the minstrel mask represented perhaps the first commodified racial fetish that was uniquely American, "an inseparable part of the national iconography" but one in which "the Negro is reduced to a negative sign that usually appears in a comedy of the grotesque and the unacceptable." As commodity, obvious parallels can be made between the practices and iconographies of minstrelsy and the slave trade, where one deals quite literally in the trading of black flesh and the other deals in the figurative trade of representations of blackness, although both involve a usurpation of agency of the black body. Similar ideological assumptions belie both practices, and both were critical in building a national character that drew on the exchange value of the objectified black body. The minstrel mask signifies the donning of blackness as its primary trope, but it also signifies the larger trope of the racial or ethnic Other. From the protective and surrogate mask of an emasculated black image, white males became the clowning, winking instigators of all manner of cultural mayhem. In his 1995 history of blackface minstrelsy, Love and Theft, a recuperative study that has broadened and legitimated the discussion of minstrelsy and its place in American popular culture, Eric Lott suggests that minstrelsy was more than merely a racist art form conceived to humiliate African Americans, but was also a way for white performers to comment on the events and times in which they lived, although this certainly included ambivalence about the black presence in their midst. The minstrel mask allowed multiple social critiques to issue forth and was a space that invited multiple interpretations of the genre itself—its ideological scope, the ambitions of its performers, and the pleasures paid for and enjoyed by its audiences.
In the early nineteenth century, blackface performance was often an especially defiant gesture by disempowered young white workers, who in abstracting themselves as blacks created an oppositional strategy to existing structures of power and social conservatism. Although masking offered a way to play with collective fears of an alienating black Other, it also complicated whiteness since ethnic Italians, Germans, Irish, Jews, and those in positions of power and class privilege were often lambasted in blackface performance, even though some of these, particularly Irish and later Jewish males, proliferated and profited from the blackface art. The minstrel show "was the first among many later manifestations, nearly always allied with images of black culture, which allowed youths to resist merchant-defined external impostures and to express a distinctive style."
The minstrel mask allowed these youth to engage in acts that were interpretively fluid and politically expedient, opening a space in which to alternately flirt with desire and repulsion while avoiding retribution from the racial masquerade by employing a Janus-faced camouflage. On the one hand, they signaled to congenial audiences their mutual identification with blackness and a sense of social alienation, while, on the other, when performing before hostile audiences, they disavowed and belittled their subject. In this way the pleasures of racial transgression were instantly accessible but immune to social repercussion. The mask easily cavorted between sympathetic identification and fear, a delicate play of the racial carnivalesque that worked for more than one hundred years to "safely facilitate an exchange of energies between two otherwise rigidly bounded and policed cultures," and that would critically factor into the formation of a self-consciously white working-class identity. It is no less true, however, that blackface performance by whites was done at the expense of blacks and not necessarily to their benefit until around the mid-1800s and particularly following the Civil War, when blackface troupes featuring African American performers were in vogue. African American minstrelsy nurtured the first generation of black entertainers and formed the bedrock of virtually all subsequent African American stage and theatrical performance—from vaudeville and musicals to stand-up comedy and film.
It is likewise true that black minstrel performance did not provide the strategic counterbalance to the pejorative representations of white minstrelsy that some had hoped. The historical impact and consequence of white performances of blackface and the negative stereotyping of black people it perpetuated somehow became more indelibly etched into the American racial imagination than the work of black performers who tried to insert more authenticity and humanity into the art form and "break down the ill feeling that existed toward the colored people." One reason for that certainly is that white minstrelsy, despite the space for oppositional subversion that it opened up, nonetheless became a space where the fears, resentments, hostilities, and imagined threats of emancipated blacks were played out. The trajectory of black and white minstrel performance would follow largely segregated paths after the war owing to a number of unsettled issues such as black social advancement and the trauma provoked by the presence of the black body in white space. Even after the arrival of vaudeville and the diversification of stage material that it made possible, the most egregious aspects of white minstrelsy found other forms of expression in books, stage musicals, and film. Another reason for the evolutionary racial bifurcation of American popular culture has certainly been that whites have often felt more comfortable consuming black cultural expressions when they came from other white performers. This truth has borne itself out in the historical segregation of the performance arts in America for most of the twentieth century, where separate black and white traditions have formed in virtually every area of entertainment, from vaudeville and musicals to film and popular music, represented by white performers from the Original Dixieland Jazz Band and Benny Goodman to Elvis Presley and Eminem. Black performers prospered regardless and formed a community of highly talented artists for whom other blacks became their natural audience, and this remains largely the case notwithstanding a good deal of racial border crossings and cultural borrowings from both sides. Nonetheless, it may have been wishful thinking to presume that the popularity of post–Civil War minstrelsy, the success of emergent vaudeville traditions, and black performers as acclaimed as Bert Williams and George Walker would form the basis, if not for racial healing and cultural understanding between blacks and whites, then of intervention "to subvert or amend the message of minstrelsy by substituting a new messenger." The history of race relations in the postwar period and through much of the next century suggests that this has largely not been the case. Rather, the deleterious representations of blacks produced by white minstrelsy became deeply ingrained in the American psyche, such that the "momentum of over 150 years of derogatory images and characterizations [in popular culture] flowed down on our heads with real consequence because white power enforced and depended on black racial identity."
It seems somewhat incongruous, then, that the white minstrel and his working-class audiences should identify with blacks as outsiders and transform black performance into a vocabulary of social commentary that helps to begin a tradition of white working-class counterinsurgency and subversion expressed through popular music. Minstrelsy did indeed establish a popular theater responding to the codes, parlance, and sensibilities of working-class whites while it lampooned wealthy bluenoses, but it also set the stage for the visual representation of African Americans throughout the remainder of the nineteenth century, where "images of blacks in artworks most often iterated limited or derogatory perceptions held by most whites and helped create a visual iconography for black representation." These representations helped to naturalize a social order in which blacks were marginalized and helped to shape white perceptions around blackness for more than a generation. Minstrelsy represents the first sustained cultural project in which the agency of the black male body and black subjectivity are usurped by white actors as fetishized commodity. The effects of this particular racial counterfeit have been critical in the construction of black masculinity in the white imagination up to the present day.