Toward Freedom Magazine, Burlington, VT, May, 2000:
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Travis Charbeneau 3421 Hanover Ave., Richmond, VA 23221 firstname.lastname@example.org Phone: 804 358 0417 www.travischarbeneau.com
Blues: the New World Anthem Travis Charbeneau slug "blues" 974 words
PULL QUOTE: "The definitive blues themes of oppression and loss struck strangely sympathetic chords in industrial cultures of dominance and acquisition."
Beginning in the '20s in America with jazz and reaching full stride in the '50s with rock and roll, young, white Americans -- with the rest of the West quickly following -- adopted as their anthem a music based in African-American gospel and blues. At each phase of this adoption "the establishment" was understandably perplexed; even outraged. Why should the well-educated, affluent progeny of white, Western European, Judeo-Christian culture find such resonance in a pagan music born of black American slavery? We have lived with this jarring irony so long now that we take it for granted, even to today's near-universal mimicking of black American urban street culture. But the original question remains: why should white kids sing the blues? In the Roaring 20s, jazz may have provided mere titillation for a young intelligentsia out "slumming." But by the time the enormous US Baby Boom cohort opted for out-and-out rock music, we had a deep and lasting mass affection that quickly spread throughout the Industrialized world and beyond. Somehow, the definitive blues themes of oppression and loss struck strangely sympathetic chords in industrial cultures of dominance and acquisition. Again, the appeal was embryonic in the '20s, but even then The Great War had already cast suspicion on the promise of forward moral momentum and material progress that had burned so brightly at the turn of the century. After the Second World War and the Holocaust mere doubt evolved into the existentialist dilemma. Man had The Bomb and God was missing in action: oppression and loss. Against this cosmic backdrop, American boomers felt additionally burdened by the conformist culture of the rising corporate state and its "buy something, be happy" agenda -- again, soon to spread world-wide. If we would just ignore recent history (a specter vividly evoked by the very reticence of our veteran fathers) and overlook the "duck and cover" black farce of the present, we would find peace and fulfillment in the new consumer society. If we got the grades and the proper papers from the proper institutions, the good life, complete with white picket fence, could be ours. But, first, we would have to obey a lengthening list of increasingly incomprehensible and stifling rules. Further, amidst affluence came genuine new forms of deprivation. We felt loss of community as families moved from robust old neighborhoods into sterile suburbs. And we felt loss _within_ families. First, they broke down into their nuclear component, bereft of extended relatives. Then Dad disappeared into the office, heralding what would become the family's losing struggle to accommodate separate internal orbits compassing discordant interests and agendas. Finally, they atomized into sub-particles as divorce rates rocketed. There was loss of meaning in work as fewer of us could understand what our fathers, and increasingly, our mothers, did for a living. We completed our loss of connectedness with the land as the migration from farm to city, begun early in the Industrial Revolution, received an infusion of benzedrine from the post-war boom. The cost of modernity involves a litany of oppression and loss too long to recount here, and, as industrialism has reached into the Third World, so has the appeal of blues-based musics -- often recombined with indigenous forms into "World Music." Blues music spoke to this oppression and loss. And its rock and roll form stoked the logical desire both to rebel against the system perceived to be behind it all and to escape into the momentary ecstasy of orgiastic dance -- or outright orgasm as the old sexual repressions and hypocrisies became likewise intolerable. Pushing discontent along, we saw the world-wide appearance of the best-educated generations in history. Many became the first college graduates in their family's experience, in effect propelling the children of a nouveau riche bourgeoisie into the same intelligentsia that had originally found jazz. "Liberal education," based on scientific and humanist principles, tended to undermine conservatism, and, safe in the sheltering warmth of industrialism's miracles, we were encouraged to be skeptical, to challenge and even offend the old regime. How better than with our "jungle music," complete in white societies with the racial lever? Rock music, as one piercing '50s observer put it, was "an obvious attempt to bring the children of the white man down to the level of the nigra." (Among equally conservative Jews, Muslims, et al, this might translate into bringing "the children of Jehovah/Allah, et al, down to the level of the Great Satan.") In many happy respects, it succeeded. Unfortunately, in the interim, the "nigra" seems increasingly brought down to the level of the white man in the sense of authenticity coopted by commercialism. African-American musical forms dominated global culture for most of the 20th Century, comforting the slave stubbornly residing within us all. But, with each generation, the music has become angrier. The latest rap or thrash hit (video/soundtrack/advertising campaign -- the forms are often simultaneous and indistinguishable) typically features a nightmare of black muscularity or white punkhood oozing wrath from every pore, menacing the camera and the ever-larger and better-appointed living rooms of Post Industrial nations. Perhaps he is selling tennis shoes or online investing. And perhaps some of his rage derives from a rush to commercialization that expropriates the artist's authority, certainly to the extent of making the hallowed "rebel" pose frustratingly transparent. Unlike earlier stars, there is no decent interval of 20 or 30 years before selling out. Hits appear in TV ads while still on the charts or even before. The always-uncomfortable engagement between rock and commerce has become a noisily unhappy, and, some would argue, an increasingly-barren marriage. Even feverishly commercialized, however, blues forms remain the folk music of America, and increasingly the world. But, midst the growing press of money and celebrity, perhaps the "folks" who make it -- and many who listen to it -- obtain increasingly less in the way of solace or delight.