Black Like You: Blackface, Whiteface, Insult & Imitation In American Popular Culture/Cross The Water Blues: African American Music In Europe/I Got Thunder: Black Women Songwriters And Their Craft
One thing I’ll always admire Boy George for was his statement that he hated white people. True, it was just aimed to shock tabloid readers, but his explanation was that white was the absence of color, and without color, life was dull. Of course, he himself was Caucasian and British, but there’s no denying that one of his vocal models was a black American, Smokey Robinson. That a cross-dressing entertainer of Irish descent saw that as a perfectly logical choice — as did his audience — is just another example of how pervasive black American music is in global culture.
And it is just the sort of thing that John Strausbaugh seeks to explicate in Black Like You, a rambling, sometimes confusing, always entertaining, and occasionally frustrating examination of the ways black and white cultural touchstones have mixed it up from the days of the earliest minstrel shows to the era of gangsta rap. It’s doubtful Strausbaugh’s book will find much traction in the cultural studies departments of our major universities, but that’s just saying that it’s compulsively readable — and he’s definitely done his homework.
He also attempts to cover so much ground that the book is necessarily superficial, but there’s really nothing wrong with that; those of us who’ve spent a long time thinking about these matters had to start somewhere, and I wish I’d had something a little less tainted with identity politics and rhetoric to look at 30-odd years ago. Music, film, literature, advertising, language, and the weird world of “Negrobilia” (collecting racially-charged antiques) are all here, all dealt with in a calm, even manner. You’ll come out of this book considerably better-informed than you went into it, most likely.
You’ll also be confused. Not only are the issues not exactly, um, black and white, but Strausbaugh has denied us a summing-up. Instead, he’s turned over the “afterword” to Darius James, a black American resident of Berlin who’s written on several of the same themes Strausbaugh has. His account of a reading by Greil Marcus in Berlin (which contains, weirdly enough, a plug for my blog) touches on some of the issues Strausbaugh’s raised, but may well cause you to close Black Like You with a resounding “Huh?”
Better “Huh?” than ho-hum. You know you’re going to get a modicum of that when you pick up a collection of academic essays on a pop culture theme, and I wondered how you could fill a book like Cross The Water Blues with enough material to fatten it up. “African American music In Europe” seems like a broad topic until you really think about it, and sure enough, this book is all over the place. Low points include Guido Van Rijn’s “Lowland Blues: The Reception Of African American Blues And Gospel Music In The Netherlands,” which is basically a list of concerts; Rupert Till’s “The Blues Blueprint: The Blues In The Music Of The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, And Led Zeppelin,” which certainly won’t tell any fan anything new; and Christopher G. Bakriges’ “Cultural Displacement, Cultural Creation: African American Jazz Musicians In Europe From Bechet To Braxton,” a dull, theory-heavy essay which basically says some jazz musicians found Europe a good place to work, hardly a groundbreaking observation.
But there’s also some good stuff here, particularly the essays that pick up on the aftermath of the Fisk Jubilee Singers’ pioneering 1873 British journey to raise money for their college in Tennessee. It’s worth remembering that, in the days before recorded sound, the merest hint of a blue note (and from the late recorded evidence, it was mere, indeed) could cause quite an outpouring of vituperation and praise, albeit praise based in amazement that such lowly beings could produce anything of interest. Their success prompted other gospel groups (often “representing” nonexistent colleges), coon singers, banjo players, tap dancers and the like to try their luck, as documented in Jeffrey Green’s “Spirituals To (Nearly) Swing, 1873-1938.”
Most fascinating, though, is memorabilia collector Rainer E. Lotz’s “Black Music Prior To The First World War: American Origins And German Perspectives,” which uses the author’s collection of flyers, photographs and music-box discs to attempt to figure out just what these people were selling in Europe, particularly in Germany. All in all, the wheat outweighs the chaff, no mean achievement.
Finally, there’s Sarah Lawrence professor LaShonda Katrice Barnett, Ph.D., to show us that the old ways aren’t quite dead after all. This collection of twenty transcriptions of interviews with everyone from Abbey Lincoln to Joan Armatrading is, its academic gloss notwithstanding, a pretty humdrum affair. The success of any given chapter is likely to hinge on the subject’s reaction to Barnett and her willingness to engage in girl-talk. Armatrading, for instance, had apparently just finished her Into The Blues album and was in meet-the-press mode. You won’t find much beyond that, although heaven knows Barnett tried. On the other hand, Chaka Khan and Nona Hendrix were in fine fettle, and Shirley Caesar was, as always, preaching with everything turned up to ten.
If there’s a problem here, it’s that there are too many unknowns or nonentities among the subjects: Tokunbo Akinto, Narissa Bond and Pamela Means among the former, and Patti Cathcart Andress (of Tuck & Patti) and Dionne Warwick (who’s not a songwriter and seems quite spaced out) among the latter. Barnett also stumbles a couple of times, unable to pierce Nina Simone’s defensive armor or engage with Miriam Makeba.