Tuesday, April 28, 2009

White Black Singers, Part II

Yesterday I discussed the way white male rockers have appropriated codes of black masculinity to define their identities. In the study I mentioned, Krin Gabbard’s Black Magic, Gabbard has relied in part on the work of Eric Lott, particularly an essay titled “Racial Cross-Dressing and the Construction of American Whiteness,” that can be found in Simon During, Ed., The Cultural Studies Reader, Second Edition. Lott argues that whites perform “whiteness” in many ways, and that these performances are addressed, not necessarily explicitly, to blacks. As part of his analysis, Lott explores one form of white impersonation of blackness, what is known historically as “blackface,” which Lott interprets as perhaps more significant than whites merely “pretending” to be black, but in fact an illustration of a deep desire in white performers to be black. My point yesterday simply was to observe that the most obvious cultural activity in which whites have expressed their fascination with black culture (at least since the rise of Elvis Presley) is rock ‘n’ roll.

I assume it is widely known, though perhaps the point needs to be reiterated, that Elvis was so “controversial” at the time he burst on the scene in the 1950s was because his stage persona was so obviously modeled on black codes of masculinity: his greased and oiled hair, for instance, and his vocal style, borrowed from Otis Blackwell and other rhythm and blues singers of the 1940s and 50s. Consider this information, taken from Greil Marcus’s book Dead Elvis, quoting Robert Henry, a Beale Street promoter: “…he [Elvis] would watch the colored singers, understand me, and then he got to doing it the same way as them. He got that shaking, that wiggle, from Charlie Burse, Ukelele Ike we called him, right there at the Gray Mule on Beale. Elvis, he wasn’t doing nothing but what the colored people had been doing for the last hundred years. But people . . . people went wild over him” (p. 57). Marcus also quotes Nat D. Williams, “the unofficial mayor of Beale Street”: “We had a lot of fun with him [Elvis]. Elvis Presley on Beale Street when he first started out was a favorite man. When they saw him coming out, the audience always gave him as much recognition as they gave any musician—black. He had a way of singing the blues that was distinctive. He could sing ‘em not necessarily like a Negro, but he didn’t sing ‘em altogether like a typical white musician. He had something in between that made the blues sort of different . . . . Always he had that certain humanness about him that Negroes like to put in their songs. So when he had a show down there at the Palace, everybody got ready for something good. Yeah. They were crazy about Presley” (p. 57). I should add that Henry and Williams are talking about events before Elvis ever showed up at Sam Phillips’s Sun Records, when Elvis, then a teenager, was also spending time in Memphis’s black neighborhoods having sex with young black girls. (See McKee and Chisenhall’s Beale Black & Blue: Life and Music on Black America’s Main Street (1981).

What I failed to mention in yesterday’s post, however, is that white rock ‘n’ roll performers may reflect the “withering-away” of blackface. As John Szwed has observed, “The fact that, say, a Mick Jagger can today perform in the [blackface] tradition without blackface simply marks the detachment of culture from race and the almost full absorption of a black tradition into white culture” (qtd. in Lott, “Racial Cross-Dressing,” p. 243). Perhaps there is no better way to illustrate the sort of performance of “whiteness” that is derived from black masculine codes than to see it. I’ve provided a link here to a performance of “Spill the Wine” by Eric Burdon and War, an interracial group that made some fine music integrating Latin rhythms, rhythm and blues, rock, and funk into a highly distinctive mixture. Eric Burdon is to be included among those white rockers (many of them from a working class background, as he is) that I mentioned yesterday, who always expressed great love of the blues; he also happened to be a good friend of the late blues great John Lee Hooker. I see a bit of Mick Jagger in Burdon’s performance as captured in this video, but then, as I mentioned above, Jagger himself has so thoroughly internalized blackface style that he is no longer even aware of it. I should also add that when I die and am reincarnated, I want to come back able to sing like Eric Burdon.

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