Appropriating Culture

PRINT PAGE |

Thank you for publishing the piece by David B. Schock on the Elkhart Jazz Festival of 2018 (“Blowing for Elkhart,” Correspondence, December).  As a longtime resident of New Orleans in the past, I have particular reasons to savor his reports and the expressive photograph.

It was dismaying, however, to learn of the marked disinterest in Dixieland Jazz at present and even more to read that the decline is inspired by resentment on the part of some blacks, who ask, in effect, “What is a group of . . . white men doing playing the kind of music that originated in . . . Storyville in New Orleans?”  At issue is what they consider cultural appropriation.  Whites, it is objected, should not take over for their pleasure, sometimes their profit, a cultural product that belongs to another race.

Wisely, Mr. Schock does not attempt to apologize to these critics, unnamed but real; instead, deflecting the matter, he pays appropriate homage to the black artists who developed the genre and carried it on, often under difficult conditions.  In fact, however, there is no need to justify the borrowing.  True, jazz, like blues, originated in black contexts and incorporated certain African elements.  (Spirituals and black Gospel music have a somewhat similar history, but the role in their development of white evangelical hymns and, of course, the Bible was enormous.)  Blacks cannot, however, claim original ownership of key elements in jazz and jazz performances.  The agency for the creation and spread of jazz and blues is multifarious and diffuse.  Drums and other percussive instruments, rudimentary stringed instruments, simple pipes and horns are ancient and belong to many ethnic groups.  Moreover, in the 20th century modern versions of these instruments, improved and manufactured by Europeans and white Americans, replaced homemade versions or at least surrounded the latter—I think of washboards—with modern sounds, modifying their original effect.  Other instruments in jazz ensembles—clarinets, trumpets, saxophones, bass fiddles, pianos—were designed originally and improved by Europeans.  The argument could be pursued by reference to technical processes that allowed jazz and blues to be spread: paper and the printing press, recordings in many forms, transmission over airwaves and through today’s optical fiber cables and devices.  Written language played a role also.

It will be countered that jazz and the blues came out of oppression and terrible suffering and thus are exceptional.  Indeed—though not, perhaps, so uniformly terrible as is claimed, and certainly not unique.  The practice of lamentations, which gave rise to a literary genre, is ancient.  To say that many good products of the mind and soul developed in, sometimes through, suffering is not to excuse institutional or individual brutality or disdain.  What people has not suffered?  Think of the Russian serfs, the Ukrainians under Stalin, the Jews in Europe in the 1930’s and 40’s, and the Irish for long centuries.  During the 1840’s famine, of the huge numbers of Irish who immigrated to the United States, many disembarked in New Orleans.  Hired right off the ships, generally to dig canals, they lived miserably and died in droves, often of yellow fever.  It was said widely that an Irishman’s life was worth less than a slave’s.  He signed on for nothing and thus represented no investment; few were interested in his welfare.  His dependents, if, by exception, he had any, cost the employer nothing; he worked for very little and perforce lived in a shabby, uninsulated rented room; and, if he died, a replacement could be found at the wharves almost any time.

To wish to protect music from use by those who did not invent it is to misunderstand the essence of the art.  Music cannot be kept in a cage; it’s in the air, and it’s in your head.  On Bourbon Street still and in bars of the better hotels, you can hear it for free, as you pass by.  Certainly, we properly recognize copyrights, and printed sheet music carries a price, as does a CD or other recording; but copyrights expire and the work enters the public domain.  Nor are jazz tunes and performance notes, even when printed or recorded, hieratic objects, mishandling of which may seem sacrilege; neither are they anthropological artifacts, the possession of which by outsiders is, increasingly, judged unsuitable, even oppressive.  For white men to play jazz is not lèse-majesté.  To assert so betrays a tribal mentality.  Cultures have borrowed from each other for ages.  On any large scale, such borrowings are not theft.  We should look at them, rather, as a tribute.  Occasionally, they furnish grounds for greater social harmony.

        —Catharine Savage Brosman
Houston, TX

Print

You have not viewed any products recently.