Friday, March 24, 2017

Book Notes: Blues People by LeRoi Jones

Amiri Baraka published "Blues People" in the early 1960s when he was still known as LeRoi Jones. It is a complex book in which he seeks to interpret the course of African American music, in the light of the socio-economic and racial history from which it emerged. 

Obviously the story begins with the enslavement of Africans and their transfer to America for their forced labour; the naked greed of which was smuggled under the ideological pretence that they were less-than-human and not deserving of rights. Baraka argues though that slavery was not unique to America, and had in fact been practised in Africa, and in many previous empires. American slavery was though, uniquely savage though because it involved de-humanising treatment in the context of complete cultural alienation and white cultural hegemony. There are some interesting links between this thesis and some other things I have read recently. 

In his work on Christian apologetics, Tim Keller addresses the critique that the Bible is too tolerant of slavery by pointing out that what most people imagine slavery to mean is African-American plantation slavery, rather than the debtors work-house style arrangement of Roman and Greek times. He argues that the uniquely horrific situation of African American plantation slavery is not discussed in the Bible, and that as such such attacks are misguided. Baraka, demonstrates very forcibly why this is a reasonable view. Likewise, Mark Noll in addressing the same question argues that critics of the Bible's response to slavery fail to consider that the Bible is resolutely anti-racist; and that the central problem in American history was racism, more than slavery. Baraka's early chapters resonate interestingly with such thinking because it was the specific ripping of people from their culture and crushing them beneath another which was the actual horror, he writes.
"There remains some condition of communication on strictly human terms between Babylonian and Israelite or Assyrian and Chaldean that allows finally for acceptance of the slave-caste as merely an economically oppressed group. To the Romans slaves were merely vulgar and conquered people who had not the rights of Roman citizenship. The Greeks thought of their slaves as unfortunate people who had failed to cultivate their minds and wills, and were this reduced to that lowly but necessary state. But these slaves were still human beings. However, the African who was unfortunate enough to find himself on some fast clipper ship to the New World was not even accorded membership in the human race" (p2)
From this starting point Baraka explores the de-Africanisation of what he calls the American Negro (terminology that was uncontroversial in the 1950s and 60s, and used by all sections of the Civil Rights Movement, from SLCC integrationists, to SNCC radicals), specifically with reference to the culture and music that was made as African culture interacted with the dominant European one. "Only religion (and magic) and the arts were not completely submerged by Euro-American concepts", he writes (p16). 

What follows is a very complex exploration of a wealth of musical and cultural trends, to which the author offers explanatory notes as to its origins and influence; from his interpretation of racial history. He notes the western derision at African culture in the 1920, while The Charleston (a poor-man's West African Ashanti dance) was all the rage; for example (p17). He looks at jazz, work-songs, blues, and the troublesome nature of the hugely popular minstrel shows; which while embarrassingly patronising, also grew in tandem with white abolitionism; as the humanity of the slaves became harder and harder for their oppressors to deny. The cultural cross-currents between African and European culture, through church and music are fascinating - and hugely complicated, Baraka writes; "ragtime developed from the paradox of minstrelsy, insofar as it was a music the Negro came to in imitating white imitations of Negro music." (p90). Classic blues of the inter-war years is described, when commercial models of music distribution and recording came to the fore and produced stars like Bessie Smith. One remarkable observation is that the collapse of Reconstruction in the South led to a new fusion of European and African music. Baraka says that the higher-caste of lighter skinned Negroes had sought to distance themselves from  their darker neighbours, and sought integration into the dominant culture. Expelled from such integration by the stricter racial Jim Crow codes, they took this culture back into the 'Negro' sections of town, where new cross-currents emerged. Chapter nine develops such thinking further with a detailed examination of the Black Middle Class, which he repeatedly castigates for its un-Africanness and cultural dispersal into a form of European-isation which he clearly sees as dull, formal, uncreative and weak. Boogie-Woogie, Stride, Big Band, Swing, and 1960s blues, all get this sort of fascinating appraisal.

"John Lewis [of the Modern Jazz Quartet] attempts to "combine" classical music and jazz have more often than not been frightening examples of what the final dilution of Afro-American musical tradition might be" (p229)!

Blues People is a fascinating book, but I have to say it is very hard work. I have read a lot of American History, and music and cultural history; but found this exceptionally hard going, despite how interesting it was. Baraka writes with a dense, obfuscating style which sometimes hides rather elegant thought behind a tangle of knotted clauses. The book is also loaded with knowing references which are meaningless to the uninitiated. Some of the people, and things he cites are still common currency, and his arguments make sense; but over half a century later, many of the things he assumes the reader will know have dropped from view. Likewise there is a dearth of references for some of his startling historical assertions, especially in the first quarter of the book; which made exploring any of those further impossible.

Despite those reservations, this is a really interesting book. It is one of those historical books which is itself now a historical artefact. In 1963 when this book was published, LeRoi Jones (as he was then known), was a Black public intellectual, helping shape the emerging Black Consciousness, as Civil Rights moved towards Black Power. That this was published in 1963, is as important, as what he writes about 1923, 1903, and 1863.

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