14 Sep

To view the past from a distance is to see cycles moving within grander cycles of rises to golden ages; stagnation, decline, disaster, barbarism and rebirth.

A standard 19th century quip about America was that it was the only culture to move from barbarism to decadence without once ever touching civilization. This was the 19th century which had not yet given witness to the American 20th. Twentieth century culture, historians agree, starts with the First World War. America rises. Its cinema, having been one of many competing industries, begins to dominate. Its popular music infected the world and does still. This music, grounded in a synthesis of African folk music suppressed and perverted by slavery and various European influences most especially the folk music from Britain and Ireland.

Many centuries before the European settlement of America, the Roman Empire withdrew from Britain and left what is now south-east England defenseless. These people were no more a match for the hardened tribespeople of northern Europe than the average middle-class suburbanite kid would be against a boy his age who’d been a child-soldier in an African shithole. They were fat juicy ducks and they got plucked.

Men of three tribes from what is now Denmark and Sweden heard about the ducks and there they went. The result: the establishment of the Anglo-Saxon tongue on the south-east corner of Britain. These men created England by destroying the men who were living there. The women were theirs according to the fortunes of war.

That’s a cursory summary of an event much argued about. But think on it. The Celtic language disappeared very quickly. English is a form of German. These men forbid the women to teach their children the language of their mothers. It was a way of establishing cultural authority. Centuries later European slave traders would deliberately break up their ‘commodities’ so no-one could understand the language of others. I have a theory that these Celtic women, disinherited, violated, unable to communicate in her own tongue did what the African slaves would do. They sang. Linguistically hampered but musically?

Again it’s simply a notion. The evidence is scant and inconclusive. We don’t actually know in detail what happened. But I like the story as it’s a way of conceiving of the grand trauma that is human history. Perhaps it didn’t happen that way. But many things did happen pretty much that way and worse.

Music will be transformed by trauma. Surely it must. The trauma dealt on the Irish by Cromwell, the trauma of African slaves whose culture survives in the songs sung in the cotton fields. At the end of the 19th century waves of migrants pour in to America from east European pogroms and Irish famines, from the war-ravaged Italian peninsula. American music already established in folk forms like the blues is performed in taverns and at dances, in cities and onstage; mutating, morphine into sophisticated urbane forms: blues, ragtime, jazz and swing.

In the fourth decade of the American century the child of Jews who’ve escaped persecution in Europe composes a song based on a Ukrainian lullaby. A song? An aria. The libretto by a white man trying to understand and express the lives of… the heart and soul of the still-oppressed dark skinned Americans who built the country from which they are still disinherited. How can these men who never saw the business end of the whip, who no-one ever called nigger write such a song? Where does it come?

This was a time when black folks were still prevented from voting in the South. This was still the era of back of the bus and lynch parties. A time when the hue of your complexion was your destiny. Cheery on the surface the song is an ironic counter-point to itself. The living is not easy and many of us will never spread our wings. But from within this squalid little cage, this outrage to human dignity, you can still, as so many in chains have done, sing.

Sing this song. Black or white it’s a song sung best by those who have suffered.


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