It’s a White Thing

In 1966, I spent an afternoon at the home of the Mississippi bluesman Skip James. I'd had no idea he now lived in Philadelphia, Pa., where I happened to run into a young white harmonica player who happened to know him. But I'd been listening to his grim, eerie and powerful music for the past year in my college dormitory. James had cut 26 songs in 1931, mostly ignored by record buyers at the time, but treasured by white collectors in the '50s and '60s, despite the lousy sound quality. When James, Charley Patton, Robert Johnson and Son House were young men, few people outside Mississippi even knew their names; today, if a Mount Rushmore rose up in the Delta flatlands, they'd be on it. James had been tracked down, "rediscovered" and newly recorded just two years before I met him, and made a triumphant appearance at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival; he would die, at the age of 67, in 1969.

The harmonica player took me to a liquor store—you had to bring a pint of gin but hide it from James's wife—then to a row house in unofficially segregated North Philadelphia, with lace curtains in the windows and an upright piano in the parlor. James was at first stiff and ungenial, but he warmed up as we passed the gin and he began to play. Then—without warning—he began to teach me one of his easier pieces: "Hard Time Killing Floor." He'd play a lick and pass me the Guild guitar I'd seen on one of his record covers; I'd play it back, and he'd shout "No!" I wished the earth would swallow me up: I was being yelled at by Skip James. But eventually I got it: in his Mississippi accent, he'd been crying "Now!" to encourage me.

James was supposedly contemptuous of his young white fans, but if he was simply tolerating us in his home, I now understood why: he was justly proud of his music and wanted it to be carried on. As he told the writer Peter Guralnick around that time, his aim was "to confront you with something that may perhaps go down in your hearing and may be in history after I'm gone." At last—I hadn't expected this, either—James led us in the Sunday-school anthem "Jesus Loves Me." I didn't know then that he'd been ordained as a Baptist minister—nor that he'd previously worked as a whorehouse piano player and, as he told another visitor, shot at least one man. Then we sat down to eat the gumbo his wife, Lorenza, had been cooking. I already knew I'd be telling this story all my life.

But after reading two new books, Marybeth Hamilton's "In Search of the Blues" and UC San Diego professor Camille F. Forbes's "Introducing Bert Williams," I wonder if I've ever understood the story. Both books deal with the vexed relationships between black performers and their white audiences, and both quote Paul Laurence Dunbar's "We Wear the Mask," his still-terrifying 1896 poem about the black experience: "We wear the mask that grins and lies/… We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries/To thee from tortured souls arise."

Forbes's book is a biography of Broadway's first black star, for whom Dunbar once co-wrote songs: in context, the poem inevitably evokes an image of Williams, a light-skinned Bahamian who always performed (often to whites-only audiences) in a grinning mask of burnt cork. Hamilton, a University of London historian, argues that the blues as whites have imagined it—a pure and primal musical utterance originating in the deep backcountry of the South—is less a creation of black musicians than of white esthetes. Folklorists and record collectors, she suggests, preferred blues performers to be downtrodden, decrepit and obscure—much as Broadway audiences needed Bert Williams to black up and talk in plantation dialect. Hamilton's reference to Dunbar suggests a barely suppressed resentment of white condescension; she quotes the singer-guitarist Lonnie Johnson, who asked an interviewer in the 1960s, "Are you another one of those guys who wants to put crutches under my ass?"

So was James wearing a mask for me? Was I one more privileged, gawking white boy wearing the bluejeans of a field hand? And who, by the way, found it noteworthy that a bluesman had "lace curtains" and a "parlor"? Had I "met" him at all? In a culture like ours, is such a thing even possible? Ever since there were black Americans, whites have tended to hear in their music an authenticity presumably unavailable to the overcivilized. To untangle the strands of romanticism, racism, guilt and dread behind this would take us all day and into tomorrow, but you can see it in whites' odd mixture of reverence for and condescension toward musicians from Louis Armstrong to Jay-Z. Rows of cotton pickers chanting "field hollers," R&B saxophonists honking and squealing atop the bar in a gin mill, rappers with gold chains and automatic weapons—such images belong to America's musical and racial mythology of suffering, violence and passionate abandon. The 19th-century minstrel shows, first performed by whites in blackface, formalized—even ritualized—a range of uneasy attitudes, from contempt to envious fascination, with genteelly Africanized music and low comedy. But when blacks themselves took up stage minstrelsy—after all, weren't they the real real deal?—the ambiguities became far more pointed, and a hint of subversion qualified the subservience. Out of this tradition came the comedian Bert Williams. And, arguably, every black performer since who's faced the assumptions and fantasies of a white audience.

Skip James would have envied Williams his long run as a star of the Ziegfeld Follies in the early 1900s, and his command performance for the King of England in 1903. But Williams's role as a racial pioneer must have been far more confusing and painful than James's few years of encounters with clueless hippies. His Ziegfeld colleague W. C. Fields called Williams "the funniest man I ever saw and the saddest man I ever knew." Even as a child, Williams was a gifted comedian, and he worked hard to perfect his craft: he calibrated his minimalist gestures, searched for the acoustic "sweet spot" on the stages where he played, and continually fine-tuned his onstage persona. "There is nothing about the fellow I work [as opposed to "play"] that I don't know," he said. "If I take up a lazy stevedore, I must study his movements—I have to, he's not in me—the way he walks, the way he crosses his legs …" But in Williams's day, a black theatrical performer had to play such stereotypical characters as the "lazy stevedore." His careerlong enterprise—he died in 1922—was a paradox: to give dignity to the inherently demeaning roles his audience expected and demanded.

Like white blues and jazz fans half a century later, that audience insisted on its own version of authenticity. The New York Evening Post faulted Williams's elaborate 1906 musical "Abyssinia" for its supposed cultural contamination. The music, the Post's critic wrote, "is at times too elaborate for them and a return to the plantation melodies would be a great improvement upon the 'grand opera' type, for which they are not suited either by temperament or education." The show was best "when they sang and danced with negro quaintness and abandonment." Similarly, when the black singer Leadbelly, brought to New York in 1935 by folklorist John A. Lomax from Louisiana's Angola Prison, began performing—as he'd always done—such numbers as Gene Autry's "That Silver-Haired Daddy of Mine" along with his blues and work songs, a Brooklyn Eagle critic wrote that "already the pure n––––r in him shows signs of being corrupted." Williams's critics may not have known that after singing "Ain't got no ejudcation, but I was born with mother wit," he might unwind by reading Goethe, or that the song's composer, Will Marion Cook, was a classical violinist who had worked with Dvorak. Others may simply have found it unthinkable, or unfaceable.

Today, Williams's material seems unfaceable—a show called "Mr. Lode of Koal," a song called "Evah Dahkey Is a King"—but back then he even had the support of W.E.B. Du Bois. In fact, Dunbar himself co-wrote that "Dahkey" song, whose line "We's each a rightful ruler" seemed so potentially provocative that Williams at first hesitated to sing it. Some of his advances were excruciatingly modest: his clownish shoes, for instance, were only slightly oversize. Yet his insistence on wearing blackface was paradoxically liberating: "The real Bert Williams," he said, "is crouched deep down inside the coon who sings the songs and tells the stories … It was not until I was able to see myself as another person that my sense of humor developed." It worked onstage, but it must have been an alienating way to live; Williams's heavy drinking, and his occasional flashes of anger late in life, suggest his mask may not have fit as comfortably as he claimed. Still, it made him one of the wealthiest black men of his time, and enabled him to do work that was universally admired, and sometimes even understood.

You'd think that the rural black singers a generation after Williams would have been too far under the radar for whites to care how they presented themselves—at least their obscurity should have guaranteed their "authenticity." But Hamilton—like blues scholar Elijah Wald in his book "Escaping the Delta"—points out that the primal purity of such now canonical figures as Robert Johnson was imaginary. The Mississippi Delta of the '20s and '30s was no backwater but the epicenter of the cotton agribusiness—the place where job-seeking blacks went to get out of the deep country. Patton, Johnson and his mentor, House, recorded blues because they made their living as entertainers, and that's what both folklorists and record companies wanted. But their everyday repertoires were generally much more diverse. Like everybody else in the Delta, they listened to phonographs, jukeboxes and the radio, and they sang country music, popular songs of the day, even jazz, for both blacks and whites. Singer Johnny Shines, who knew Johnson well, said that the singer of the doomy "Hellhound on My Trail" was also "a polka hound."

Hamilton showily claims that the "Delta blues" was actually born in the 1940s in a Brooklyn YMCA room, where an eccentric record collector named James McCune educated a circle of acolytes to appreciate Patton, Johnson and others as "voices that were untainted by the modern world." She presents McCune, who died a Bowery derelict, as the archetype of the "elusive mediators and shapers of taste"— including Lomax, his son Alan Lomax and the folklorists and critics who also championed the old-school New Orleans jazz of Jelly Roll Morton and Bunk Johnson. "All of them set out to find an undiluted and primal black music," Hamilton writes. "Behind that obsession lay an emotional attachment to racial difference dating back at least to the mid-nineteenth century, to abolitionists' enchantment with the peculiar power of black singers, their uncanny ability to allow their white listeners to experience an unimagined transcendence, a level of emotional intensity otherwise out of their reach." At their best, she grants, "they enriched understanding and broadened white horizons." But at their worst, "they fed on a faintly colonialist romance with black suffering, an eroticization of African-American despair."

This keen but harsh insight implicates not only Hamilton's targets but every white connoisseur of black culture: from Broadway swells watching Bert Williams performing his signature number, "Nobody"—"Who says here's 25 cents, go ahead get something to eat? Nobody!"—to a 19-year-old hippie, sitting in a Philadelphia parlor, listening to Skip James, soon to die of cancer, singing, "If I ever get up off this killin' floor/I'll never get down this low no more." If that's really all there is to the story—a voyeuristic vampirism, feeding itself on another's delicious pain—then we all live in hell, though of course in segregated neighborhoods. Maybe I should have stayed in mine. But you should have been there when James cried "Now!" and I thought, oh. Only a moment, but a moment nonetheless.