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The United States of the Blues: On the Crossing of African and European Cultures in the 20th Century

[Editor's Note: When I first read an article in The New Yorker about Cornel West I was literally blown away. I'd been dabbling in writing my opinion on various issues and it seemed this West dude had already been there and done that! I hadn't read any of his stuff before, and when I followed up by reading Race Matters, well, he did it again. A lot of what I had thought and expressed was similar to what West had already written about in a clear and more complete fashion than my attempts could muster.

Not that he'd necessarily agree with me putting him in the same category as West, but when I read an essay by William Benzon it happened again. Many of the sentiments I had about classical music and jazz, as well as "white" and "black" cultures, were just that, sentiments. Not based on any careful study or anything. Just impressions I gathered from living and thinking.

When I read U.S. Blues it just seemed clear that Benzon had done his homework and laid out an analytical framework that is thoroughly documented and complete. It confirmed some of my beliefs, questioned some others and gave me an awful lot to think about. I particularly appreciated the way he tied musical and historical concepts together with cultural and political ones to make a complete analytical point. Anyway, the entire essay is about 143K so I'm not going to mail it out to the list generally (unless I get an awful lot of requests), but it is available via the Meanderings Web site and anonymous ftp at ftp://ftp.webcom.com/pub/sppg/meanderftp/us_blues.txt. I've also promised Bill that I will pass along any comments you have regarding the essay which, by the way, he's hard at work expanding into a book. The essay's abstract is reprinted here with his permission, as well as the permission of the Journal of Social and Evolutionary Systems which published it previously. Enjoy! I sure did!!]

by William L. Benzon 161 Second Street, Troy, NY 12180

Published in Journal of Social and Evolutionary Systems, vol. 16 no. 4, October 1993. Posted with permission of the publisher.
Note that here and there in the article you will see "Editor's Notes" attributed to "PL." "PL" is Paul Levinson, editor of the journal.

Abstract

European-American racism has used African America as a screen on which to project repressed emotion, particularly sex and aggression. One aspect of this projection is that whites are attracted to black music as a means of expressing aspects of themselves they cannot adequately express through music from European roots. Thus, twentieth-century expressive culture in the United States has been dominated by an evolving socio-cultural system in which blacks create musical forms and whites imitate them. This happened first with jazz, and then with rock and roll. The sexual revolution and the recent florescence of blacks in television and movies suggests that white America has had some success in using black American expressive forms to cure its affective ills. The emergence of rap, from African America, and minimalism, from European America, indicates that this system is at a point where it is ready to leave Western expressive culture behind as history moves to the next millennium.

Bright moments is like bein' with your favorite love 'n you all share 'n the same ice cream dish. And you get mad when she gets the last drop. And you have to take her in your arms and get it the other way.
---- Rahsaan Roland Kirk

When I am elected President of the United States, my first executive order will be to change the name of the White House! To the Blues House.
---- Dizzy Gillespie, 1964 presidential campaign

[The blues tradition] is the product of the most complicated culture, and therefore the most complicated sensibility in the modern world.
---- Albert Murray (1970, p. 166)


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Meanderings 1.07 -- October 25, 1994