Black Americans made the songs, but not the myth of romantic ‘authenticity.’ If white tastes and obsessions distorted their music, can we ever hear each other?
David Gates in Newsweek:
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?”
More here. [Thanks to Ruchira Paul.]