Who Owns the Blues?

Long ago, in a time available to us in the dirty crackle and hiss of 78s with worn labels, an African American singer who had traveled for 15 years on the medicine show circuit committed to shellac a ...

Long ago, in a time available to us in the dirty crackle and hiss of 78s with worn labels, an African American singer who had traveled for 15 years on the medicine show circuit committed to shellac a song called “Old Dog Blue.” His name was Jim Jackson. Jackson recorded “Old Dog Blue” for Vocalion Records in 1928, just after electric microphones had begun to replace acoustic horns and a few years after so-called “race records,” the name then given to recordings by African American singers, had begun to sell in high numbers. Jackson had already enjoyed reasonable success with his “Kansas City Blues,” and “Old Dog Blue” lived out its life as a race record in post-Reconstruction America. Twenty-four years went by. In 1952, along with the music of other singers in his era both black and white, Jackson’s song came back from the dead when it appeared on Folkway Records’ Anthology of American Folk Music. The Anthology gathered together a selection of obscure recordings from West Coast filmmaker Harry Smith’s extensive collection of 1920s and 1930s 78s, many of which had flopped as commercial ventures in their day. It is the familiar and fraught American story of how black vernacular music like Jackson’s was resurrected and reused by white rock and rollers that the Brooklyn-based, English-born writer Hari Kunzru takes as the topic of his new novel White Tears.

The Anthology made a profound impact on American popular music: folklorist Robert Cantwell describes it as the “enabling document” of the American Folk Revival; rock writer Greil Marcus maintains that it was the source for Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes.1 Jackson died in the late 1930s, but with the emergence of the Anthology, some of its other artists commenced touring careers on the folk circuit, finally enjoying notoriety for recordings they had made several decades earlier. During the late 1950s and into the 1960s, white rock artists like Janis Joplin and Bob Dylan were acquainting themselves with music recorded during the era represented on the Anthology, and Jim Jackson’s tunes caught on with this crowd. Janis Joplin recorded her own version of Jackson’s “Kansas City Blues” around 1964; the Byrds took on “Old Dog Blue” for their 1969 album Dr. Byrds and Mr. Hyde, releasing it as “Old Blue.” Virtually forgotten at midcentury, then, Jackson was brought out of obscurity by rock and rollers and became an American legend. What are the ethics of this canonization, Kunzru asks? How should we understand rock and roll’s reverence for earlier African American musical forms in relation to a history of racial brutality?

How should we understand rock and roll’s reverence for earlier African American musical forms in relation to a history of racial brutality?

White Tears examines these questions in an engaging mystery that surrounds a lost musical track. Carter and Seth, a couple of annoying millennial white rock-and-roll fans who met while matriculating at a liberal arts college, accidentally discover a 1920s blues song that Kunzru invents for this novel, “Believe I buy me a graveyard of my own.” The lost song is portrayed here as having been written and performed by a fictional bluesman named Charlie Shaw, whom Kunzru depicts as literally returning from the dead to take revenge on white people like Carter and Seth who fetishize and collect black recordings. The plot becomes absorbing indeed when we find out that Shaw never actually made it to the original recording session, having been detained on the way there by some white men who arrested him on a bogus charge. Instead of recording “Graveyard,” it turns out, Shaw was doing hard labor. The plot of White Tears thus turns on the search for details of a recording that never was.

Kunzru tells this intriguing story to show how the trajectory from black vernacular music to rock has eclipsed black influence. Of course, although it is Elvis Presley who is known for his first hit, the 1954 “That’s All Right,” the song was written by African American blues artist Arthur Crudup. Perhaps just as relevant, a white man named Bob Wills made famous the hillbilly song that inspired Chuck Berry’s “Maybellene,” which launched Berry’s rock and roll career in 1955. Indeed, many rock-and-roll historians note that this early moment in the evolution of the genre is marked by an admirable disregard for what music historian Karl Hagstrom Miller calls the “musical color line.”2 But an idea of rock’s happy interracial origin is not what interests Kunzru, who instead focuses on rock and roll’s entanglement with the legacy of American slavery. White Tears ties the obsession with records occurring among white-boy rocker types like Carter and Seth—think High Fidelity or Fortress of Solitude—to lynching and other instances of the brutal violence against African American persons that characterizes US history.

“Lightnin'” Washington, an African American prisoner, singing with his group in the woodyard at Darrington State Farm, Texas, 1934. Photograph by Alan Lomax / Library of Congress

What a complex and engaging idea. But in turning rock’s past into a conduit for informing us that race persists in organizing present social reality after all—a fact that will already have dawned on Kunzru’s readers—the novel arrives at the glib conclusion that record collecting among white rock fans is simply a later version of slavery. In the historical link White Tears creates between owning records by early blues artists and owning slaves, Kunzru seeks to expose the network of racist social forces that motivate white collectors in the present. In this, Kunzru recasts the capitalist conspiracy that so engages the novelist Thomas Pynchon to show that the digital world of “ones and zeroes” (Kunzru’s techno-geek white boys quote this line from The Crying of Lot 49) is organized by an invisible racial grid as well. Kunzru lessens the impact of this suggestive revision, however, by attaching it to obvious instances of racism—Carter’s odious belief that black music is “more intense and authentic than anything made by white people,” for example, or his blonde dreadlocks. Guess what? There’s some racial appropriation going on here. Well, yeah.

By the novel’s end, the drive to find, keep, and preserve rare recordings by black singers like Jackson is shown to close a historical loop that began when the ancestors of those who do so violently policed the terms of African Americans’ participation in civic life. This causal trajectory creates genuinely intriguing links between popular music and American racial history, and as the through-line for the novel’s musical mystery it works. But when it is revealed that it was Carter’s ancestor who sentenced Charlie Shaw to hard time, these associations come to seem pat. Literalizing subtler versions of the suggestion that Carter’s generation repeats the crimes committed by white people in Shaw’s closes down another, much more complex idea Kunzru incorporates into White Tears: that old vernacular tunes help music fans in the digital era “plug into the real.” In cleverly depicting Shaw’s “Graveyard” record as nonexistent, Kunzru portrays the quest to discover what’s on “Graveyard’s” B-side and other details about the recording as something like the historical drive itself, a human desire to retrieve and possibly rearrange an ultimately irrecoverable past. This brilliant thread in White Tears is diminished when the novel simply offers up biological inheritance as explaining all. In other words, White Tears ultimately delivers the kernel of reality it portrays blues records as promising but never yielding.

Is this a version of love and theft that removes the love?

Toward the end of White Tears, an ancient white collector named JumpJim points out to Seth that “Patton, Son House, Willie McTell, Robert Johnson, Skip James, John Hurt,” American blues heroes all, “were like ghosts at the edges of American consciousness.” “Things got lost,” explains JumpJim of his desire to collect their records, “Musicians got lost.” What are we to make of this statement in a novel where to find these voices again means to inherit the racial hatred that obscured them in the first place? Is this a version of love and theft that removes the love? Such a construal of things would be reasonable, of course, since black musicians have been ripped off by white producers, record executives, and artists since the beginning of record industry time. The problem is that the love of black blues saturates this novel, is endemic to its essence. White Tears thus concludes on a note that makes it hard to know just what to do with the novelist’s own obvious passion for the crackle and hiss.

The essayist and record nerd John Jeremiah Sullivan, who describes himself as one of so many “pale and misanthropic scholar-gatherers,”3 seems an instructive real-life contrast to Seth and Carter, whom Kunzru humorously portrays as similarly “masking” their “disabling caucasity with a sort of professorial knowledge.”  Kunzru delivers this characterization along with the same sort of sweet self-deprecation that Sullivan adopts when describing his own nerdy practices. But this similarity is confusing, since according to Kunzru’s logic “pale” record collector types are to be understood as extending earlier forms of racism. There is a happier version of the collector that comes through in the novel, the one that emerges in moments like this, or in its celebration of the blues, music in which, it must be admitted, Kunzru can claim no more valid a stake than his protagonists. Kunzru’s own otherness from this music notwithstanding, he has no apparent ethical concerns about using songs by African American singers as a badge of authenticity.

Or if he does, they do not stop Kunzru from making use for his novel of the late-1920s recording—a real historical one— called “I’m Gonna Start Me a Graveyard of My Own.” This tune was recorded by none other than Jim Jackson, and the similarity between Jackson’s lyrics and the fictional “Believe I buy a graveyard of my own” in White Tears makes the link unmistakable. Kunzru’s gesture therefore resembles that enacted by Joplin and the Byrds, not to mention that of the protagonists he makes complicit in slavery.

In the original Jackson song, the singer will “start” a graveyard, so that he can bury the other man in his girlfriend’s life after killing him with a “trusty blade.” The fictional song recasts this sexual revenge as racial; in Kunzru’s version of the song, violence will be meted out on a cruel white overseer. Kunzru brings this scenario into his novel via the bloodline connecting plot to song: the progeny of the overseer in the song find their gruesome end on the wrong side of this razor. Jackson’s “trusty blade” thus makes its way from the Vocalion 78 to this 2017 novel. What a great idea. Let it not go unsaid, moreover, that there is great pleasure involved in finding the connections planted in these pages. But in presenting his own craft as an extension of Jim Jackson’s, Kunzru also evinces a love for which White Tears precludes any ethical account. icon

  1. Robert Cantwell, When We Were Good: The Folk Revival (Harvard University Press, 1996), p. 189; Greil Marcus, The Old, Weird America: The World of Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes, Updated edition (Picador, 2011).
  2. Karl Hagstrom Miller, Segregating Sound: Inventing Folk and Pop Music in the Age of Jim Crow (Duke University Press, 2010), p. 15.
  3. John Jeremiah Sullivan, “The Ballad of Geeshie and Elvie,” New York Times, April 12, 2014.
Featured image: Portraits of Stavin’ Chain and Wayne Perry performing, Lafayette, Louisiana, circa 1934–1950. Photograph by Alan Lomax / Library of Congress