Living Up to the Song

Kurt Cobain

Living Up to the Song

Barra Ó Séaghdha reviews Faking it, which explores the divide between artist and performance.

Here’s a happy story. Huddie Ledbetter, usually called Leadbelly, came out of jail in 1934 and was taken on tour by the father-and-son team of John and Alan Lomax, famous for collecting folksong and lore across the United States and around the world. As a result, the singer and guitarist travelled widely, became famous, was recorded and was able to escape the life which could very easily have seen him in and out of jail for the rest of his life. So everybody must have been happy: Leadbelly with his fame and better life; the Lomaxes with the success of their talent-spotting and collecting; the audiences who experienced this authentic incarnation of musical tradition. And the rest of us should be happy too because we can enjoy the music through those recordings.

Maybe this is a happy story, but it is a little more complicated than the simple version outlined above. We can start with the question of race. Leadbelly was black and the Lomax brothers were white. Running parallel to the political and social history of racism in the United States, there is a long history of exploitation of black musical talent by mostly white record companies. Here is one more example, not so different from that of the other performers in the blues section of the music store where you will probably find Leadbelly today. Interestingly, however, after buying your Leadbelly CD out of curiosity, you may be surprised at what you hear.

This is how Hugh Barker and Yuval Taylor describe it in their book, Faking It – The Quest for Authenticity in Popular Music:

Although Leadbelly had considerable talents – a powerful, dynamic, expressive voice; a resonant, confident, and energetic guitar style; a prodigious musical memory; an astonishingly varied and rich repertoire; a strong sense of rhythm – his songs didn’t swing.

In fact, Leadbelly had almost no black following, though his blackness and his criminal record were hugely important in the way he was perceived and marketed in the 1930s, as these headlines suggest: ‘Lomax Arrives with Leadbelly, Negro Minstrel’; ‘Sweet Singer of the Swamplands Here to do a Few Tunes Between Homicides’; ‘Murderous Minstel’; ‘Bad Nigger Makes Good Minstrel’; ‘Virtuoso of Knife and Guitar’; ‘Ain’t it a Pity? But Leadbelly Jingles into City’; ‘Ebon, Shufflin’ Anthology of Swampland Folksong Inhales Gin, Exhales Rhyme’. The connection between swamp, blackness and violence is too obvious to need underlining and we can assume that a kind of primitivist thrill was part of what drew audiences. This kind of uninhibited racism might encourage us to get some perspective on the condescension which Irish performers have suffered on occasion.

Admiration for Leadbelly was greatest among Communist Party members, progressives and the folk-music fraternity, but what about the collectors themselves? There can be no gainsaying the efforts the elder Lomax made to gather in and store for posterity vast swathes of American musical heritage. His interest in black musicians from the South developed relatively late; he was more associated with such genres as cowboy music. Generations of musicians of wildly different styles have been able to feed on his 1930s material.

One of the attractions of Barker and Taylor’s book is that its theme is carried through studies of rock, punk, disco and Elvis Presley as well as country and blues. The authors are interested in the joys of music, but are also well aware of the political and artistic questions surrounding or raised by the music.

Let us return briefly to their Leadbelly story. The relationship between the Lomaxes and Leadbelly was very close and the close-up detail reveals something less savoury than, for example, the relationship of genuine respect between English visitors like George Thomson or Robin Flower and the Blasket Islanders. John Lomax was particularly interested in what he saw as the original, authentic, primitive strain in black American music. That was why he was particularly interested in prisons: the years of segregated existence would remove black musicians from other musical influences and provide him with the material he was after.

This is a variation on the wish of many middle-class intellectuals, whether in the United States, Britain or Ireland, that native and peasant cultures should be preserved from commerce and modern culture. Barker and Taylor point out that the collector is blatantly imposing his own categories on the music. It is interesting, too, that Lomax had excellent relations with prison administrators and never took an interest in prison reform. Leadbelly had a huge repertoire across numerous genres, and across the racial divide, but it was as a black musician that he was toured and marketed. The passive verb may be particularly appropriate here, because Leadbelly was not a free agent. The Lomaxes took two thirds of his income, rather than the fifteen per cent allowed by New York law, and then paid him an allowance. We also learn that Leadbelly was asked to wear ‘prison garb for his performance rather than the suits and sharply creased shirts that he, like most professional musicians of the era, preferred.’ These were the factors that led Richard Wright to refer to John Lomax as a ‘southern landlord’ and his touring as ‘a cultural swindle’, while New Masses spoke of a ‘slavemaster attitude’.

Our authors see him in a less sinister light, as more of an old-fashioned (and unenlightened) showman rather than a slavemaster. In a sentence that is not the most stylish in the book, they write: ‘He presented Leadbelly as the very picture of authenticity and, in a paternal manner in keeping with that picture, kept Leadbelly away from more lucrative offers from people Lomax thought might exploit him.’

Some of the points made in the telling of the Leadbelly story are reiterated or developed in another case history, that of ‘Mississippi’ John Hurt. Arguably, in correcting the commonly told story, the authors may have over-tilted in the opposite direction by focusing two early chapters on the mis-categorisation of black musicians. They should perhaps have offered us a reading, on their terms, of a more standard blues career. John Hurt’s material encompassed the full range of what could be called old-time music; he had played quite frequently with local white musicians (with one in particular, though more as an accompanist than as his own man); his voice was not recognisably black (so that many listeners to the famous Harry Smith anthology assumed he was white); and the Mississippi tag was added as a marketing device to make him sound like a Delta blues player, which is how he is still likely to be labelled in music shops.

Barker and Taylor are pointing to an important phenomenon: the segregation of Southern music in the thirties. That funding provided by Henry Ford – eager to invent a lineage of uncontaminated white music to mirror his own political bias – helped to create the separation between blues and old-time music, thus contributing to the foundation of the almost entirely white genre of modern country, will come as a surprise to many. To get the full picture, however, or to avoid giving a false impression, we need a realistic assessment of how common inter-racial music-making was in the American South in the 1910s and 20s.

This review article may also have given the false impression that the authors of Faking It treat Leadbelly and Hurt in isolation. In fact, the chapter on Leadbelly opens and closes with an examination of Kurt Cobain’s singing of a Leadbelly song, ‘In the Pines’, in an Unplugged performance shortly before his own suicide. If one of the recurrent themes in the book is that false categorisation can distort the reality of music as it is lived, another major theme is how an obsession with personal authenticity – often with reference back to the harsh life and unadorned music of earlier performers – has led popular musicians to burden themselves with an unnecessary quest to reconcile their daily selves with their performing selves. This could take us back to Romantic ideology, but for the most part the theme is developed through an examination of more recent careers and movements in music. Barker and Taylor suggest that Cobain’s quest for authenticity led him into an impossible position: he wanted to show the fans his real self, the person he had been before fame; but fame and the life of a performer change the self; and the song that appears to reveal the self one day may feel hollow the next, but must still be performed. As it happened, Cobain did produce an extraordinary performance of this song, about a woman who goes ‘into the pines’ after the decapitation of her lover in an accident.

Cobain made a few modifications to Leadbelly’s version: he changed the first chord of each verse from major to minor (occasionally adding a fourth), thus imbuing the song with an even more melancholy tone; he slowed the tempo way down, doubling the song’s length and also increasing its sadness; he changed the repeated words ‘black girl’ to ‘my girl’, thus erasing Leadbelly’s racial perspective.

He also employed repetitions of certain verses, first sotto voce, then straining to sing the verse an octave higher, and ended with a verse in half-time, his voice hoarse and ragged. But could anyone perform regularly at this level? And performances like this are essentially about the singer, not the song.

The third chapter of the book centres on the song ‘T.B. Blues’ by Jimmie Rodgers, seeing in it the seeds of the autobiographical song and the demand for personal authenticity that became an article of faith for many in the sixties. The authors disagree with the idea that Elvis Presley was authentic in his early recordings and was then led astray. Instead, they celebrate the way in which from the beginning he used play and borrowed effects and a theatrical sensuality to blow convention apart and celebrate freedom. They look at the influence of the Beatles as a group that produced its own (and increasingly personal) material and at the mixed results of John Lennon’s personal quest.

They show how power shifted from songwriters (for whom singers had been a means to deliver the song) to singers and groups who produced their own material. They suggest that an artificially created group like the Monkees were not victims of scheming producers when some of them demanded recognition for their less-than-evident personal talents; in believing that they needed to demonstrate their personal authenticity rather than playing a game that was working for everybody they were victims of an ideology that could not encompass the artificial, playful genre in which they operated.

The authors follow every twist and turn of Neil Young’s efforts (some with admirable results) to be ‘real’ or to sabotage his own image – but if readers of the 800-page biography of the singer by Jimmy MacDonough lay claim to knowledge of many other twists and turns, we should just take their word for it. In later chapters, the theme is explored again in an analysis of Donna Summers, queen of disco, that flamboyantly artificial genre. Barker and Taylor suggest that she would have been happier accepting her own gift for projecting various personae rather than worrying, as she does in her autobiography, about the world’s refusal to relinquish the image of her created by the ecstatic artificiality of her performance on the long – the very long – version of ‘Love to Love You Baby’.

We could go on to deal with the authors’ reading of the Punk movement (and of Johnny Lydon’s career in particular) and the rather weak chapter on the Buena Vista/Cooder/Cuba phenomenon, or the last chapter, which is about Moby and just about everything, but perhaps that is not necessary, because the themes are already clear. And that is the weakness of the book, which could have done with some pruning. Perhaps the best way to read it would be to read, say, three of the first five chapters and then to choose another two or three according to personal taste. In this way, instead of becoming a little irritated at yet another exposition of the themes of the book, readers would come away from the book with a relatively fresh sense of what it has to offer: a useful scepticism about any over-tidy approach to music (be it from well-meaning collectors, from manipulators, or from idealists of one kind or another) and, conversely, an acceptance of the unpredictability and diversity of concrete musical experience; and a revaluation of song and of genre, along with a recognition of the unavoidable distance between daily self and the self that animates a song in performance.

The authors raise questions that are usually dealt with in more academic contexts and language. It is to their credit that they make these questions come alive in studies of popular music forms and in a style that does not close them off from the curious general reader/listener. This is a book that could stimulate readers to test their own musical values, to think about the way their taste has been formed, to go back to some of the music in their collections with fresh ears, and to ask themselves how the authors’ themes hold up when brought to bear on areas not covered in the book. How many books do more?

Hugh Barker and Yuval Taylor, Faking it – The Quest for Authenticity in Popular Music, W.W. Norton, 2007, 375pp

Published on 1 September 2008

Barra Ó Séaghdha is a writer on cultural politics, literature and music.

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