The Music of Our Sins -- Part II Letters at 3am

photograph by Jason Stout

1952...Dwight Eisenhower was elected president (with Richard Nixon his VP). Elizabeth II was crowned Queen. The Korean War ended. Senator McCarthy's committee was blacklisting thousands for their real or supposed political beliefs. Books published that year include Kurt Vonnegut's Player Piano, Ralph Ellison's The Invisible Man, John Steinbeck's East of Eden, Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea, and Flannery O'Conner's Wise Blood. The better movies were Viva Zapata, The African Queen, High Noon, and Singin' in the Rain. The variety shows of Milton Berle, Ed Sullivan, and Arthur Godfrey dominated television. There wasn't any rock & roll; the likes of Perry Como ruled the airwaves. Officially in the South (unofficially everywhere else) racial segregation was rigidly, violently enforced. Martin Luther King, Jr. was 23 years old, just beginning his ministry. And a small record company, Folkways, issued Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music -- 84 tunes, recorded between 1927 and 1932; it wasn't much noticed. Rather, it wasn't noticed by critics paid to notice such things. Yet no book, TV show, movie, or recording of 1952 would have anything like the Anthology's influence. The question is why did this collection of primitively recorded, primitively performed music spark a folk revival that still echoes in our coffee shops? Why did it become a soundtrack for the civil rights movement, and why was Smith's Anthology (or the revival it inspired) a principal avenue by which white people became involved in that movement? What did it contain that so profoundly touched Bob Dylan and his ilk? (Through them the Anthology transformed, and continues to transform, the content of rock.) The answer lies in how its compiler, Harry Smith, defines the word "American."

Technically, it should have been called "The Anthology of Southern Folk Music." It contains no music of New England, nor of the industrial cities of the East; none of the West, none of the Midwest. No Italian, Polish, German, Yiddish, or Chinese immigrant songs. Nor Native American, nor Mexican. Smith wasn't ignorant of those sounds. He grew up near Seattle, in South Bellingham, and his first musical studies concerned the Native Americans of the Northwest. Yet all the tunes he compiled are by Southerners. Thus the Anthology makes clear that Smith defined the word "America" primarily in relation to one sin: slavery. The music he presented was, literally, the direct issue ("issue" as in "offspring") of this continent's most ingrained, institutionalized stain.

For it is a dismal fact that the genocide of Native Americans, though equal in sin to slavery, didn't shape our institutions. This country was built upon the twin horrors of genocide and slavery, as much as it was built upon the Constitution and industrialism; but, to our ineradicable shame, we seem to have taken for granted the "necessity" of genocide. Not slavery. There isn't an American institution, to this day, that is not tainted, twisted, and haunted by the gruesome paradox of slavery in a "free" country.

Smith's compilation is, intentionally, the surviving sound of slavery and its aftermath. That is why it deserves its title as an anthology of American folk music. It is a reminder of how recent, how present, slavery is. Consider:

My father was born in 1916 in East Harlem, of parents just come from Sicily. That year, a slave born in the last months of the Civil War would have been only 51. So in my father's childhood, when Harlem was still roughly 20% white, he must have passed many on the street who'd been born into slavery. Spoke to them. Played with their grandchildren. And when I came along, in 1945, a few of those people, though very old, were still alive. Old people sitting on benches in the parks where my mother wheeled me in a stroller. So I, too, was in the presence, however casually, however unknowingly, of people born into slavery. Certainly every person of my father's generation in the states of the former Confederacy -- every person now in their 60s, 70s, and 80s, old folks you pass on the street, white and black -- grew up among people born into slavery. Saw and spoke to them. Knew them. Loved or hated them, but could not avoid witnessing them. When you look, now, into the eyes of aged people in the South, and even into the eyes of the not-so-aged, you are looking into eyes that looked upon those who once were slaves.

And this is also true of New York and Chicago, the major destinations of the Southern black diaspora of 1915-1930.

That's how close we are to that time, to those people, to that unspeakably horrible sin. This is an enormous fact, and it is enormous precisely to the extent that we are oblivious to it -- to the extent, for instance, that we act as though restitution for the sin of slavery is a "liberal" notion referring to something in the distant, distant past (though we know that segregation was Southern law only 30-odd years ago.) As though a people, slavers as well as the enslaved, could recover from the immeasurable shock of such a sin, such an ordeal, in so short a time -- so short a time, indeed, that many of us still alive have looked upon slaves' faces.

In The Anthology of American Folk Music there is an intentional confusion as to what color each face is. For Harry Smith, in his notes to the Anthology, never identified a singer by race. With many voices, their race is clear; but with some, not a bit clear. Listen to Rabbit Brown, Bascom Lamar Lunsford, Henry Thomas, among others, and swear to their race. You can't. Greil Marcus, in his Invisible Republic (the best book about America since its greatest essayist, James Baldwin, died), relates how the Anthology's first listeners were certain that Mississippi John Hurt was white. This ruse was Harry Smith's way of saying that the sin of slavery, the wound of slavery, had a sound that blurred the boundaries of skin and skin's color -- that the races had created a mutual culture, and thus were fated to a mutual fate, no matter how rabidly anyone resisted.

How is all this reflected in the content of the Anthology's songs? Racial issues could not be sung directly without gruesome consequences. The years 1927-1932, when these tunes were recorded, were the height of the lynching craze that followed the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan (partially inspired by D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation, originally titled The Klansmen, a glorification of the KKK). These voices, white and black, were witnesses to that craze -- some, no doubt, were lynchers, and all knew both lynchers and victims. This couldn't be sung. What you hear instead are bizarre tales and states of mind that could have been lifted from the stories of William Faulkner, Zora Neale Hurston, and Flannery O'Conner. (Those writers shared the reality of these singers, their contemporaries.) The rest of the country wasn't obsessed with prison songs, but the South was, because the South was a prison, imprisoning both races in the outcome of the sin. "The way I'm treated I'm bound to lose my mind," Blind Lemon Jefferson sings. What you hear is the swampy thickness of the air and of the blood; the murderous atmosphere; the unfettered irrationality; the shrieks of agonized faith and faithless agony; a humor defiant in its absurdity; an insistence, not on staying alive, nor on any hope of prosperity, but rather on suffering and dying proudly; and a sense that God is fresh out of mercy, and has nothing to offer but Judgment.

"Judgment Day is the weather here," Greil Marcus writes. Judgment Day is the sound of the dazed, struggling, defiant survivors of slavery, on both sides of the color line. Marcus says that in these songs Judgment Day "is a way of life, present in the smallest details of landscape and language.... Its presence makes all these things into symbols and charges them with meaning...." Marcus speaks of "sins committed, perhaps even without intent, that will throw the world out of joint, crimes that will reverberate across space and time in ways that no one can stop." Marcus doesn't connect this atmosphere specifically with slavery; but it lives between the lines of his great book as it lives in every note of these songs.

Is Rabbit Brown singing of his beloved or of the American dream when he says, "Sometimes I think that you're too sweet to die/ And another time I think you oughta be buried alive"? It's an open question. It's often been said that the difference between gospel and blues is only the words "Jesus" and "baby" -- otherwise, the lyrics are much the same. In exactly that way, the beloved and the American Dream are interchangeable in these songs -- songs in which the beloved is always betraying you, or being murdered, or leaving, or promising to visit you in prison, or marrying another, or watching you hang. Our beloved American Dream. For this is the music of that dream's horrid sin. These are the sounds of its witnesses. This is the nightmare that, upon waking, you've chosen not to remember. You may wish you were a mole in the ground, and sing of it; you may beg for your grave to be kept clean, and sing of it; or, like one singer, you may just want to go fishing... but you're surrounded by a nightmare and its witnesses, and until you face it you can't be certain that it won't recur, and that you won't wake screaming again, black and white, chained to each other, equally doomed.

Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music has been reissued in a CD box set by Smithsonian Folkways

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