Racial Politics of Music Revivalism
While researching for a graphic novel I am developing, I came across an interesting article by Tony Thomas, an African-American scholar and folk musician, answering the question Why Black Folks Don’t Fiddle. Every decade over the past century has seen a revival movement, sometimes spurring newer forms of traditional-modern hybrids, most famously the Folk Music™ of the 1960s and 1970s. Anyone remember the Swing revival of the 1990s? Squirrel Nut Zippers, anyone? Currently we are seeing a new trend toward traditional instruments like mandolin, ukelele, and banjo. Yet here is an odd phenomenon: Despite the African-American origins of most of this celebrated music (the banjo itself comes from Africa), you will find few black members among the revivalists.
Thomas explains why:
Some Blacks see these revivals as attempts to get away from African American based music of the present or to recast older Black musics in white versions. As an African American who writes about and performs old time music and blues, I regularly receive letters from white persons who counterpose “the Black cultural heritage” of Blues or Black string band music to the “bad ” hip hop and rap. Such white folks ignore the fact that the current musics created by the young and African American exist precisely as a continuation of musical traditions of blues and black string band music, and that the purpose of culture is to express the real identity and living conditions of people, so that they should expect Black folks, particularly the young, the poor, and the alienated to create music that speaks of their own separateness, and not the tastes of the non-white, non-young, and non-Ghetto population.
Those of us interested in performing traditional African American music of the past, are usually condemned to performing for largely non-Black audiences.
That is a very lonely sentence. And not only due to the author’s giving it its own paragraph.
Thomas runs a BlackBanjo, Yahoo group on traditional African American folk instruments, seeking to preserve the recorded history, celebrate past practitioners and practices, and highlight current revivals. I imagine he has confronted resistance and indifference in pursuing his musical passion, partly owing to the difficult past this music represents for his fellow African-Americans.
Yet I think there are other factors at play: general indifference to history in popular culture (a marked contrast to ongoing efforts by African-Americans to retrieve and preserve their past) and, even more significantly, the inequities of musical education. Black music is vibrant, deep and progressive — but all in spite of social neglect afflicting education in general and black neighborhood schools in particular. Strong music programs in public schools have become an increasing rarity since the Reagan 80s; fewer students have access to musical instruments of any kind, let alone the violin which tends to get treated as a classical music specialty. No string band or bluegrass fiddle tunes in your standard music curriculum. I reckon there are some class and race politics informing that, too.