01 October 2020

A crossroads? Part 2: What not to play in old-time music

The BIB editor writes:

The recent disputes in Britain over whether such songs as 'Swing low, sweet chariot' and 'Camptown races' should be played and/ or sung in public, have their counterparts in the old-time music world. In particular, the question 'Should "Turkey in the straw" cease to be played?' has been raised, and an answer could have wide-ranging implications.

Tatiana Hargreaves (USA) contributed the article 'An introductory resource list for understanding race and racism in old-time music' to the autumn 2020 issue of FOAOTMAD's magazine Old Time News. The second section is titled 'Should I play that tune?'; the first source listed there is Theodore R. Johnson III's article 'Recall that ice cream truck song? We have unpleasant news for you'. (This can now be supplemented by Johnson's later 'Talking about race and ice cream leaves a sour taste for some'.)

What Johnson condemns is not the tune or the words usually published under that title, but two other, racist song texts put to the same tune (one in about 1833, one in 1916). His case is that with these texts the tune became universally known, either directly or indirectly through the medium of the minstrel shows; so 'There is simply no divorcing the song [i.e. the tune] from the dozens of decades it was almost exclusively used for coming up with new ways to ridicule, and profit from, black people.' The tune is guilty by association.

Tatiana Hargreaves and Jake Blount are deservedly prominent among a growing number of musicians who represent the diversity that old-time music has, both in its sources and among its current practitioners. They perform and record together (and for what my opinion's worth, I admire and enjoy their playing and their choices of material very much). From the standpoint that 'Turkey' cannot be considered an innocent tune, Blount takes a logical step forward. In an interview earlier this year, he said: 'I know what it makes me feel when I'm at a fiddle festival and I hear someone play "Turkey in the straw" [...] When I hear that, I will go up to the person and say, "You should stop".'

To my ears, this is like going to a musical evening of American patriots and telling someone not to sing 'My country 'tis of thee', because the words most widely associated with that tune begin 'God save our gracious queen', and must be repugnant to American democracy. [Update 22 Oct.: see Michael Mechanic's article in the Hargreaves list, 'The music I love is a racial minefield', in which black fiddler Ben Hunter takes a very similar action.] More to the point, perhaps: if Blount had been present when the adventurous and eclectic black string band Martin, Bogan, and Armstrong were performing or recording, would he have said 'You should stop' to them? They played 'Turkey in the straw' in a rinky-tink style between verses of their 'Yes, Pappy, yes'; and as far as one can tell, to them it was just a corny old tune associated with farm life.

But if the tune is irredeemable because of its place in minstrel repertoire, what follows? Hargreaves comments on another of her sources: 'Minstrelsy was and is harmful to Black communities and these songs don't have a place in any casual musical setting.' As she must know, many musicians have taken to playing tunes from the minstrel repertoire; especially banjo players, because these tunes were the earliest banjo music to be written down, and our best clue to what black banjo music may have been like before it got into white hands. Rhiannon Giddens is a conspicuous example; as she said in her IBMA keynote address, 'minstrel music [...] was incredibly racist, but o so entertaining and the music was so catchy'. Is she wrong to play minstrel tunes on a minstrel-style banjo? If not, are the others who do that wrong?

L-r: Howard Armstrong, Carl Martin, Ted Bogan, Tom Armstrong

A good biographical feature on the band, together with videos of them performing at the 36th National Folk Festival (1974) in Vienna, VA, is here.

© Richard Hawkins


At 10:43 am, Blogger Denis McCarthy said...

Is this stuff intended to be taken seriously? It seems to me to be another instance of political correctness gone mad. The vast majority of musicians or listeners would have no knowledge of the origin of these tunes, and if they play them or listen to them do not endorse any form of racism or discrimination.
Should we also investigate the origin of "Arkansas Traveller" or "Sally Good'n" before indulging? If I listen to the music of New Grass Revival when Ebo Walker was a member, am I showing my approval for drug dealing and murder? Should I shun anything by Dave Evans because of his murder conviction?
I think this is another example of people looking for something to be offended by. I would prefer to ignore it.

At 10:59 am, Blogger William D said...

Thanks again Richard (having just caught up with Part 1 previously). As a member of Foaotmad and having read the autumn edition of Old Time News, I have been thinking about these things also - and have shared some observations internally. You and I have some friendly disagreements however this is not one of them. Reassuring reading for anyone who loves playing the old tunes just for the joy of the music.

At 7:07 pm, Blogger Richard Hawkins said...

With reference to my update of 22 Oct., Ben Hunter has two objections to 'The star-spangled banner', which I think are mistaken. (1) The tune originally belonged to the official song of the Anacreontic Society, a gentlemen's club in London; Hunter suggests that this clashes with its use for a national anthem. I'd point out that part of the appeal of the Anacreontic song is that (like the Gilbert and Sullivan operas a century later) it combines a jocular text with 'dignified' music. So 'The star-spangled banner' can be seen as giving the tune a suitably dignified set of words. In any case, if you're American why not regard the tune as 'captured' from the British? Think of how 'Yankee Doodle' was turned, from its origins as a British song ridiculing Yankee pretensions.

(2) Hunter (like some historians) thinks that the word 'slave' in the third verse of 'The star-spangled banner' is an offensive reference to the 2nd Colonial Marine Corps, composed of black troops in British service. I (like some other historians) think it's used in a more general sense - like 'esclave' and 'esclavage' in the 'Marseillaise' - as a pejorative word for the troops of a hostile oppressive power.

The best answer to the question 'Is a tune guilty because of words that have been set to it?' was given by the Salvation Army (and possibly earlier by others): 'Why should the devil have all the good tunes?'

BIB editor


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