Today, I open up the New York Times (electronic version) and see that there’s an Op-Ed piece about Rap and the Blues. Fresh off my triumphant trip to the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, I was ready to read something about 20th century American Music.
Dear reader, it’s with both disappointment and delight that I inform you that it was dreadful! If I subscribed to The New Republic, I’d have to cancel my subscription based solely on the stupidity of David Hajdu’s performance here in the NYTimes. Who can trust him as a music critic?
Let’s start with his basic premise: “In its bloodlust, hip-hop is more old school than many of its fans and critics may realize; in fact, the music is carrying on a tradition as old as the blues.”
Yes, “as old as the blues.” Before the blues, apparently, no one sang songs about murder or the assorted other ways folks have of hurting each other. This will be of great relief to Barbara Allen who’s been tormenting herself for hundreds of years over the death of poor William. Apparently, he just died of boredom, living as he did, in the times before anything happened.
Then, let’s dwell for a second on the next little bit. I’m going to make a convoluted point about how part of the problem with any white folks talking about the blues is the ways in which white fantasies about the black musicians–especially black men–, the secret meanings of the music, and the kinds of legends white folks wish were true all tend to cloud what are fascinating stories in their own right. You can ponder the irony of that while I do it.
He lets you know right off the bat that he thinks the blues were “were created by and for indigent African-American sharecroppers.” This is one of those things that is true enough, but lets you know immediately that you’re going to hear a little story about masculinity and struggle and lone guitarists out there at the crossroads selling their souls to the devil and not one about traveling shows and jug bands and fife and drum music and the women who got rich, like Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith, at a time when hardly any black people had money.
And just after he says that the blues were “coded in language about domestic matters, to throw off any eavesdropping whites”–thank god that Hajdu is more advanced than those white folks and able to decipher the language of the blues!–he trots out the legend of Robert Johnson, right on schedule: “Robert Johnson, the iconic early master of country blues, whose legend tells how he sold his soul to the Devil in exchange for his enigmatic guitar style…”
I’ve never seen convincing evidence that any black person who knew Robert Johnson ever knew this legend or even heard about this supposed soul-selling until white blues collectors started asking folks in Mississippi about it. Tommy Johnson cultivated such a legend about himself (much like Peetie Wheatstraw, from St. Louis, called himself “the Devil’s Son-in-Law”) and Tommy’s brother-in-law did much to further the idea that Tommy had sold his soul to the Devil. Both Johnsons spent time around Crystal Springs and it may be that some white blues collector heard someone talking about that Johnson boy who sold his soul at the cross roads down by Crystal Springs, and, not having heard of Tommy, assumed it was Robert.
But we know better now. Robert never claimed to have sold his soul to anyone. Tommy did. This is widely-available knowledge. Why do white blues enthusiast continue to ascribe the legend to Robert?
Here are my guesses:
1. Robert is now more famous than Tommy.
2. Tommy was obviously creating an over-the-top public persona in order to get people to go to his shows. That’s not nearly as exciting as someone secretly selling their soul.
3. Racism in two ways: 1. The ingrained and unexamined assumption that black people are magical (see Ghost, The Legend of Bagger Vance, etc.) and, 2. that Robert Johnson was not capable of perfecting his craft, but instead had to make some kind of occult deal in order to enhance his “gift.”
4. Robert died “mysteriously,” while Tommy died of a heart attack.
Okay, onward through Hajdu’s piece.
Next, he has an awkward paragraph that attempts to cover all musical genres from blues to hip-hop which gives the impression that the blues “gave us innumberable musical styles from jazz to rock.” Jazz was born out of the blues? I thought jazz was born out of ragtime and other New Orleans musical experiments older than the blues. But no matter. Getting things in chronological order would take away from his weird desire to link black blues musicians with “authentic” violence and white musicians with posturing and anti-roguishness–such as poor tuburcular Jimmie Rodgers, one-day-in-jail-serving Johnny Cash, and Bennie Goodman, who apparently sucked all of the violence right out of swing music with his mere presence.
Which leads us to his complaint about hip-hop: “How does hip-hop fit into this legacy? Awkwardly. While it too has at its heart the fury of profoundly frustrated, often desperate, souls, gunfire-for-show like the Lil’ Kim incident and the recent altercation over 50 Cent demean that history through pettiness, self-consciousness and off-handedness.”
What the fuck? His complaint about hip-hop violence is that it’s too petty, self-conscious, and off-handed? Again, what the fuck?
Is there some proud history of violence? Seriously, is he proposing some universally accepted standard for judging the aesthetics of violence that contemporary hip-hop violates? These young whippersnappers just don’t know how to “shoot him if he stands still and cut him if he runs” like they did back in the old days. Because lord knows there’s nothing petty or off-handed about “I’m going to old Mexico, where there’s long, long reaching guns/ When they want real excitement, they kill each other one by one.” Whatever.
He says, “In blues, the reasons (or rationales) for the violence were ostensibly amatory or otherwise personal, though societal by extension: a broken heart, wounded pride [emphasis mine], maltreatment by the boss (standing in for white society). But what was the shooting on Hudson Street about?”
Folks, you can’t make shit like this us. He asks the question, but fails to see that he’s provided his own answer. The shooting on Hudson Street was about wounded pride. The 50 Cent/the Game beef is about wounded pride and maltreatment by the boss; 50 being, in effect, the Game’s boss.
He makes one insightful point–“shootings like these seem conducted mainly for image-making, for reinforcing the street cred that rap stars’ rapidly acquired wealth inevitably threatens”–and then he starts in with how rap stars are scarcely marginalized in comparison to their ancestors in the blues, with their lives of privilege and conspicuous opulence. Again, which ancestors? Smith and Rainey were plenty conspicuously opulent and could have still told you a story or two about being marginalized.
Then, Hajdu ends with his own petty, off-handed violence: “In a sense, the shootouts on Hudson Street were business ventures–investments without much risk, since arrest, conviction, imprisonment and even death all confer status in hip-hop society.” Yes, being jailed or dying doesn’t matter to hip-hop artists the same way it does to us regular folks.
But stunningly that’s less offensive–the notion that death doesn’t mean that much to these artists–than the overall theme of the piece, which seems to be that Hajdu likes old, dead, mythologized-and-only-understood-by-white-folks black men who can mean whatever he wants them to mean better than he likes living artists.
How can someone with that attitude be a good music critic?