This is our truth, tell us yours
I grew up in a world where white men sang black men’s songs, and not always respectfully. The furore about Annie Lennox’s bizarre explanations of what Strange Fruit is about are nothing new to those of us who had to learn and understand why it was wrong for Led Zeppelin to appropriate and re-use the work of others, like Willie Dixon. The racist subtext to Lennox’s remarks is nowhere near as clear as some have made of it on Twitter, bearing in mind that it’s pretty much certain that the song was written by a white man, but the standard account of how it came to be written is clear, that it was only ever about lynchings. That makes it a song of the black experience,written by a white man who sided unambiguously with black people against those whites who were willing to lynch black people, or to turn their heads away and say nothing about it.
All too often the white use of black music is to simplify it, to water it down, or dilute its meaning. I’ve always suspected, and may have previously said, that the white interpretation of the meaning of the old blues standard, Crossroads Blues, is a racist simplification of a complex and insightful narrative black people used to explain their lives. According to the hoary old simplification of the Crossroads narrative, Robert Johnson, and a myriad of other black blues men, sold their soul to the devil at the crossroads. That sounds to me like an assumption about what poor people reliant on a complex oral culture could or could not understand and interpret. What if the crossroads was the intersection of their desires, character and personality, and the devil their own weakness and frailties? W’e’d believe that if a white poet came up with it, so why is it not the dominant interpretation of the crossroads myth?
It’s as if, because we’re incapable of putting ourself in the position of the other, the originator of the material, we can only interpret it through the prism of our own experiences. A prism is perhaps the wrong analogy there; far from splitting the light into its components to better understand it, our appropriations of the work of others act as a reverse prism, homogenizing the different strands and complexities of the experience and rendering it down to a mush that we can consume without comprehension.
Now, to be fair to Annie Lennox, it’s not as if she’s ever done anything, musically, to suggest any great depth or originality. Her collected thoughts are more likely to turn up in Pseuds Corner than the philosophy department of your local bookshop. It could well be that, because she was a powerful female figure in an industry that pushes women to the side, the expectations of her were too great, and that the error she made was to assume that she could get away with the same sort of fakery that men have got away with for decades.
There’s a simple lesson here; when you sing an old song, remember to sit in the chair of the original singer, and try to understand what they saw as they sang, and to sit in the third chair, the audience, and remember how they were perceived, and how you will be remembered. If you can’t make a congruent picture from the three perspectives, move on.
By way of digression, I should perhaps add that there are huge double standards in the issue of cultural appropriation. My favourite example,less charged and less weighed down with modern day controversies than, say, Strange Fruit, is also a tale of slavery, passion and triumph over adversity that was appropriated repeatedly for political purposes. I give you, not a blues song, but Verdi’s Nabucco.
Verdi took the biblical stories of the Jews in exile in Babylon, and used them, it is argued, as a political metaphor for Italian nationalism and unification. This was, without doubt, cultural appropriation. In 1952 the Welsh National Opera repeated the trick, singing an English translation of Verdi as the highlight of their early seasons, and establishing the Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves as a touchstone of the contradictory Welsh cultural risorgimento of the post war era; emphatically Welsh, but sung in English, and politely spoken even as it asserted that the Welsh were slaves, and god’s chosen people. A recurring theme in Welsh cultural life, right back to the idea that Wales was founded by Brutus of Troy and the legend of Macsen Wledig is the idea that the Welsh were somehow a chosen people whose suffering presaged a future reward.
In the hands of a Welsh male voice choir Va Pensiero could sit comfortably alongside favourites from Paul Robeson’s repertoire, and no-one screamed cultural appropriation. It’s hard not to argue that respect and intention saved those who thought about it from the kind of parody that sits alongside too many cultural appropriations. To return to Annie Lennox, the truth is that her version of Strange Fruit would be far more acceptable if it weren’t so leaden, so pedestrian and so unambitious. Love hm or hate him, Eric Clapton has got away with a career of playing the white mans blues (and occasional, stupid knee jerk support for racist immigration policies) because of his respect for the men and women he has worked with, and because his life has been a story of returning to his own personal crossroads, and trying to deal with the choices that led him there. Annie Lennox on the other hand, sounds like a singer with a past career knocking out an album for the ‘Christmas present for you auntie’ market, which may also explain some of the reaction to her foolish remarks. Such are the perils of singing an old song with neither care nor thought for its history, or your audience.