Race/Music: Corrine Corrina, Bo Chatmon, and the Excluded Middle
August 1, 2002 6:39 AM   Subscribe

Race/Music: Corrine Corrina, Bo Chatmon, and the Excluded Middle. Bo Carter is not the household name that, say, Robert Johnson is but he first recorded and most likely wrote one of the standards of the 20th Century. The essay linked deals with him, his song and the push me-pull you of race and culture in America. It's a post graduate thesis rife with postmodernist terminology--yet full of ideas and insights, not all of which I necessarily endorse or agree with--but which I've found thought provoking. (Details Within)
posted by y2karl (15 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
A relevant quote from John Fahey from the liner notes of The Anthology Of American Folk Music :

But why is this 'folk'? Scholars who write such things have said the the 'folk' is the culture of a group of people who're at least to some extent isolated- whether by class, sex, age, race, language, space, time, religion- from the mainstream. Folk song developed as a common currency climate of comparative isolation, derived from a way of life, and blah blah blah. This is true, no doubt; but why did Smith pick this particular grouping as representative of 'folk' music and why was he so dead-bang right in damn near every selection? There were certainly other traditions to be found within 'American' music of the 'unschooled' variety: why are there no Jewish-American motifs? What about the Conjunto? (These were, instead, 'ethnic musics.') He did not confine himself to the English language- witness the many Cajun tracks- yet he very purposefully settled on a fairly circumscribed bunch of stuff. And it's all great, of course. So why this grouping?

I believe the answer lies in the fact that Smith was actually aware of a fairly simple truth which tooks others a great many years and much head-scratching to arrive at: certain multi-cultural traditions were sympathetic to each other while others were not. The White and Black folks found herein, despite the persistent protestations of many White artists (witness Bill Monroe, who most of his life would have us believe he invented bluegrass from whole cloth- nearly true, of course), listened to and drew from each other's musics in a landscape of musical interchange nonexistant during this same period between any other traditions to be found under 'American' music.

Quite so--American roots music, black or white, comes from the South. And, furthermore, American popular music is, is derived from, is a parody or pastiche or homage to the music of black America from slavery times to present. I have dealt with an aspect of this earlier in my blackface minstrelsy post.

Moreover, and this is a theme of Waterman's work in Race/Music..., pre-war race and hillbilly music were quite cross-pollinated and hybridized--pre-war country blues musicians knew old timey white fiddle tunes and pop songs of the day and played them on the street and at parties for white audiences while Southern white musicians--the names Jimmy Rodgers, Bill Monroe, Frank Hutchinson, and, oh, Elvis come to mind--picked up on and played blues and jazz tunes. And something I've read and been told by countless musicians and 78 collectors who've gone South to meet the surviving bluesmen or on record collecting expeditions--everyone, black or white listened to and like country 'n western in general, and the Grand Old Opry in particular. At least until the baby boom generation of African Americans...

To Waterman's ears, Corrina, Corrina is the quintessential example of the excluded middle.

Here, by the way, is another Corrina, Corinna page by a Tom Diamant who hosts Panhandle Country on KPFA FM in Berkeley, CA.

By the way, the original Corrina, Corrina and other selections by Bo Carter is playing on my show right now.
posted by y2karl at 6:40 AM on August 1, 2002

Also, for you lazybones, this is from essay quoted in Race/Music...

When whites ‘do blackface,’ people don’t so much as blink...I daresay they are looked upon by many with a kind of admiration...As for blacks who are influenced by expression that is not, as some would say ‘preponderantly black,’ the response is rather more ambiguous. Charley Pride, for example, or Richie Havens, or Jimi Hendrix, or Tracy Chapman may be praised for their talents, their virtuosity in the ‘pure’ sense, but I know of no one who lauds such artists for their mastery of art forms that could be referred to as decidedly ‘white’. . .Is blackness-as-performance somehow regarded as a free-floating entity, belonging to no one in particular, while whiteness-as-performance can, and should, only belong to whites? After all, it appears to me that black-influenced whites are very often thought to be deepened and ennobled by such processes, while white-influenced blacks are regarded as weakened, diluted, less black

Reginald McKnight
Confessions of a Wannabe Negro

So, this is the other theme of the link and the post--race is, in part, a social construction and whiteness and blackness are defined by excluding even traces of the other, hence the Excluded Middle...

And your thoughts on these themes of race, music and the excluded middle?
posted by y2karl at 6:40 AM on August 1, 2002

Jeez, I hate those goddamn boxes!
posted by y2karl at 6:41 AM on August 1, 2002

Very interesting, y2karl, and thanks for the links.

Can we view this from a location, rather than strictly racial, perspective? Consider, for example, the distinct periods of segregation and reintegration of different folk musics before and after the early part of the 20th century. The dividing line between these eras is, of course, the introduction of recorded music. The attraction of Bill Monroe and Elvis to southern blues music is directly attributable to their exposure to this music; this would have been severely limited by the physical and practical barriers of racial segregation if not for phonographic recordings.

In contrast, jazz is the best example of a genre where black and white pioneers had deeply intertwined early histories. Not coincidentally, jazz was a phenomenon originating in large cities, where the practical barriers between cultural and racial communities were more surmountable.

Is the "excluded middle," then, those who live in between cultures, communities, and regions, rather than races? Perhaps today's application of the concept would be the explosion of the American suburbs, which both thrived and faltered from its specific lack of identity.
posted by PrinceValium at 7:20 AM on August 1, 2002

y2karl, You've drilled right to the heart of American popular culture with this post. I agree with Waterman, who says that white hunger for African-American music expresses "the nostalgic desire to locate ‘Nature’--Capitalism’s Other—through a process of triangulation around mass-mediated images of negritude, the rural, and childhood." (Waterman should hire someone to edit out this offensive academese.) "Capitalism," however, hasn't been the bogeyman for a long time. The "other" we are nostalgic for is far more amorphous than mere economic life. The impulse at work might be the same that has inspired pastoral movements in the arts all the way back to the Greeks. American whites have been fortunate enough to have African-Americans in their midst to "think with" and focus their pastoral nostalgia. Since African-American culture is not passive or static like the imagined pastoral cultures of Europe, it has in turn infused white American culture with its own vitality. This gives American pastoralism, in its both its blues and country music expressions, its exceptional vigor. It, in fact, puts the expression of utopian longings -- racial and otherwise -- right where it belongs: In the arts. Not in politics or policy.
posted by Faze at 7:27 AM on August 1, 2002

Well, Prince Valium, minstrelsy and coon songs pre-date records, as does ragtime, except you can count piano rolls as recording technology--but there is something to what you are suggesting. Blues became a canon, classic form with records, as did bluegrass and in fact I think it could be argued that none of what is called folk music existed before records.

I should think that there was a great deal of social interaction between blacks and whites in the South, especially among the poorer folk, despite the Jim Crow laws, and it was probematic as race relations today.

I don't know about the suburb analogy, though, Southerners aren't exactly lacking in culture and local flavor.

Faze, John Fahey had some pertinent things to say--where he's lucid and coherent--here on the same topic of pastoralism. Such as:

The optimistic sentiments of the great orators, Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln were perceived as a pageant of sophistry driven by greed, dreamed up by rhetoricians to keep the those of the underclass optimistic while at the same time starving them by paying
them slave wages. With the immigration of small farm tenants to the city, because of electricity and the railroads, by 1900 the U.S. was a collection of giant city-states or the


where everyone is a stranger, an enemy, somebody to exploit.

Cities, as we now know, do not possess souls. The inhabitants do not have souls.

Cities are the home of psychic vampires, thought police and vampire vultures.

Nobody told the Americans of the cyclical nature of history. Nobody told them of the vegetative essence. Nobody told them they only had so much time to establish
a culture, so much time before the inevitable soul-less mammonization ruled. Now the body of the people is entirely and essentially urban in constitution. A formless mass, with no individuals.

The Stone Colossus stands at the conclusion of culture where a herd of beings huddles together against the bleak, barren architecture seeking only to return to absolute vegetative servitude through drugs, religion, politics, anything. Anything, that is, except the thought
police and the vampires.

The new soul of the city speaks a new language which permeates everything and everybody. Look at the architecture. These stone visages that have incorporated the eye and the intellect of the citizen---how distinct the language of form that they babble---how different from the rustic drawl of the landscape.

No longer can the landscape figure dominate man’s eyes. Once it gave form to his soul. Feelings and woodland rustlings beat together.


and again,

There is a certain morbidity, a certain despair, realism, disappointment and cynicism in American folk music that turns up again and again. The old American dream of
democracy, unity, and equality---the dream of the new Zion built through hard work, agrarianism, populism, cooperation, camaraderie was gone by the end of the Civil War. Nobody trusted any large institutions anymore be it church, government, union, factory. No longer were railroads, electrification, large ocean-going vessels glorified.
In particular enormous devices of power and transportation were no longer worshipped as they once had been. Giant harvesters did not yet exist. But in time they would. These recordings conserve sentiments which began in the previous century.

I dunno about the pastoralism but certainly prewar blues and hillbilly music largely comes from agrarian and rural cultures that no longer exist.

I found the quote from McKnight interesting--I am going to have look around for more of his stuff.
posted by y2karl at 7:48 AM on August 1, 2002

The copyright for Corrine Corrina was co-registered in the names of Bo Chatmon and J. Mayo Williams. Williams, a former collegiate football star who worked during the 1920s and 30s as recording director for the race music departments of Paramount and Brunswick/Vocalion, identified and groomed recording ‘stars’ such as Ma Rainey, Blind Blake, Blind Lemon Jefferson, and Georgia Tom. He directed dozens of important recording sessions, and oversaw the promotion of race records in African American communities. Williams’ nickname, ‘Ink,’ was at least in part a reference to his skill at talking musicians into signing away the rights to songs they recorded. Thomas A. Dorsey (a.k.a. Georgia Tom), a pianist and singer who was later to become a central figure in gospel music, worked for Williams in the studio. "A guy’d come in with a song," Dorsey later recalled, "and he’d sing it. He had nobody to arrange it or put it down on paper. So I put it down on paper and then the company could copyright it". According to Samuel Charters, Mayo Williams "handled musical copyrights through a Paramount subsidiary, the Chicago Publishing Company, and made considerable money with some of the successful blues. He usually listed himself as a composer". By 1928 Williams had left Paramount for Brunswick, and was thus in a position to claim partial credit, and half the composer’s royalties for Corrine Corrina.

Bo Carter died in abject poverty. I doubt he saw a cent of his half of the royalties to Corrina, Corrina, probably signed away those to WIlliams for a pittance. The same is true of Muddy Waters dealings with the Chess brothers. Some things about the record industry are eternal.
posted by y2karl at 8:00 AM on August 1, 2002

From the McKnight article:
Audience–In "The Kind of Light That Shines On Texas," there is a character who spits on his arm and rubs it into his skin. What is the significance of that, was he trying to rub the black off or something?

McKnight–I don’t know. People just do weird shit sometimes. It’s a good question, but you know a writer is often the last person to think in terms of meaning and symbol. That’s what critics do, and they do a darn good job of it. Sometimes people will tell me what they have written about my work, and I say, "Wow, you got all that? That’s pretty cool." But this is just something that I observed, a kid doing this, and it intrigued me, and so I had the same question you do. It’s very likely this kid just liked the way it smelled when he spat on his arm, and it made him sleepy. But I don’t think, for me anyway, there is any literary significance. But, you know, after people have read your work, a number of stories, they will see that certain things happen over and over in your work. It’s somewhat unconscious on my part.

So, you finish your paper and then you tell me what it means. Then the next time someone asks me that question I will have an answer for him or her. I mean honestly, you see kids do strange things. In my second grade class there was an ant-eating fad among the boys. They taste like pickles. I remember the principal Mr. Thorson saying over the intercom, "Attention. Second grade boys from henceforth will be banned from those areas of the playground where there are anthills." They actually banned us from the south end of the playground. The same year, the 5th grade girls discovered they could make themselves faint. So kids do strange stuff.

Sorry I couldn’t answer your question.

Thanks. This was a great article. I've sent it to all the writers I know. The level of this conversation is far over my head, so I'll just listen in to you guys, if you don't mind.
posted by ColdChef at 8:31 AM on August 1, 2002

’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ and ’ ’ ’ ’ , ’ ’ ’ ’ ’
posted by y2karl at 10:45 AM on August 1, 2002

PrinceValium: Jazz spread in the cities because of the phonograph. Bix Biederbecke learned about jazz that way, didn't he, and not from any black people? If anything, Elvis and Bill Monroe, etc., had more contact with blacks, not less, even if they didn't grow up in urban areas. (Elvis, however, came of age in Memphis, which was and remains a large city.)
posted by raysmj at 10:56 AM on August 1, 2002

Wow, ColdChef, McKnight is pretty dense:

One of the big things is to never give up. You can always get better. I’ve never seen a writer who works at his or her craft and become worse, only better. Well, I can name a couple who have been published many times who do get worse, but that’s different. It’s a wonderful art form and we do it for self-expression and out of love, but there is always the business part of it, the publishing part of it. Very discouraging for young writers. But you just have to keep at it, keep trying and trying. No sense in shooting yourself in the head or in the foot by giving up.

And you have to read. I’m stunned by how few young would-be writers don’t care to read. That’s an activity that seems to make some of them very uncomfortable. There is just no way around it. You can be a musician by just hearing street sounds. You don’t have to study notation; you don’t have to study theory. You can paint just by looking at the natural world; you don’t necessarily have to study under some great artist or teacher, or even spend time in museums. But with writing, all the great teachers are found in books, and you just have to read and read.

Although I don’t write every day any more, I think there is some time of your apprenticeship when you have to, just have to. You have to write several hours a day, every day. Its all basic stuff you’ve all heard a million times before.

But that's a tape transcription of a talk for ya...
posted by y2karl at 11:35 AM on August 1, 2002

And that was pasted on notepad first--*sigh*
posted by y2karl at 11:37 AM on August 1, 2002

Dense in what way? In the "doltish" way?
posted by ColdChef at 11:41 AM on August 1, 2002

HIS article wasn't too dense for me, the others were. I'm trying to keep up, though.
posted by ColdChef at 11:43 AM on August 1, 2002

Dense in what way? In the "doltish" way?

It ain't Wittgenstein but he was talking, fer chrissake...

As for Waterman's Race/Music, the part where he lists the various later versions of Corrina, Corrina ,his discussion of Taj Mahal's version was of interest to me.

I know people who are into John Hammond. One played a tape of Hammond in concert, where he talked between songs in this weird variant of a white guy talking "black" intonation--an heir to the Astor fortune impersonating a southern field hand. I'm not being snooty about his singing, guitar playing or the fact he, a rich white man from an Old Money fortune, sings blues--he has as much right to as, say, Bob Dylan (Elvis is another story) but the between songs patter was an aural blackface minstrel routine. It made my skin crawl.

Here's Waterman on Taj Mahal:

Henry St. Claire Fredericks, also known as Taj Mahal. Mahal, whose father was a jazz arranger and pianist from the West Indies, began to play coffee houses around 1964, while a student in animal husbandry at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. His eclectic style was shaped by his interest in the fields of folklore and ethnomusicology, and by archival research on a variety of African American genres, including the blues, ragtime, jazz, string bands, and brass band music.

In the 'live' festival recording, the domain of the rural--iconically represented in Mahal's purposefully 'sloppy' and slightly 'out-of-tune' guitar accompaniment, rough-grained voice, and choice of dialect--continues to function, as it did during the urban folk revival, as a imagined landscape beyond the reach of contemporary racial politics, a place where a largely white festival audience could sing, clap, and whoop along with a non-threatening version of the black authentic. It must also be noted that his re-working of Dylan's version of the song allowed Taj Mahal to claim sole composer and lyricist credits, once again channeling royalties away from Chatmon and Williams.

(*a non-threatening version of the black authentic -- see also, Odetta and Sweet Honey In The Rock.)

Ironies abound. I'm not saying I'm the arbiter of the black authentic, just that ironies abound.
posted by y2karl at 12:28 PM on August 1, 2002

« Older Kidnapped for Kicks!   |   Bush may not need authorization to launch attack... Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments