The Mudcat Café TM
Thread #128220 Message #3099983
Posted By: Gibb Sahib
21-Feb-11 - 06:22 PM
Thread Name: The Advent and Development of Chanties
Subject: RE: The Advent and Development of Chanties
Thanks sincerely for your support and taking the time to read and engage my paper. Happily, I agree with all the suggestions you've made. In general, it is only for want of time/space that I was not able to address everything (the version I actually read had even more cut from it at the last minute).
Since people may read this thread in the future who are not familiar with my positions beyond this paper and recent posts, I would like to clarify some things. One is that I am not suggesting that the chanty genre needs to be somehow "reinstated" as a "Black" genre. Moreover, I don't aim to minimize the contributions, real experiences, and very valid feelings (from certain perspectives) of ownership of the genre by English people, Anglo-Americans, or any others. While it is impossible to be 100% objective, what I am interested in is seeing the reality of chanty history. The paper is not to say that any one person or group of people has sought to deny or obscure the African-American contribution to chanties. I am saying that 1) I believe the African-American contributions to be foundational and essential; they are more than "contributions" – they are that which gave birth to the form; 2) Observers during the time chanties were still in active use recognized the genre as owing, to one degree or another, to African-American culture; 3) Commenters after the genre had "died" and who did not have access to either historical materials or first-hand viewing of chanties at the height of their use, were subject to all the biases of their position and limited to what they could see of chanties at that time; 4) This process continued, whereby each generation of writers, performers, and audiences has had its perspective limited, in many ways, by that which came before them and what chanties currently "look like" to them.
On the last point, for example, 20th century writers investigating chanties –certainly without our current ease of access to resources – would have sought out sources that seemed, from their perspective, most likely to yield information. So they would read mainly sea-going accounts, for example, and not, say, go combing through writing on so-called "slave songs." Similarly, 20th century performers had practically no models of Blacks chanteying to observe. Chanteying had become, so far as the label can be applied, a "White" genre. It is fairly unreasonable to expect people in that era to see it as much else. For that reason, though at various points – mainly in the last couple decades and with performers like the Menhaden Chanteymen – the idea of Blacks chanteying was introduced to the picture, these (I think) have been incorporated into the "White genre" frame. Because, again, let's face it, nearly 100% of chantey singers that are active can be construed as "White" in some way. The repertoire of the Menhaden chantymen, adopted by White singers, became (I argue) *marked off* as "Black chanties." Is this "progress" in reorienting the historical perspective on chanties? In my opinion, not really. That they have to be marked with the qualifier, "Black," only reinforces the idea that White is the default, and that these Black songs are to be given a marginal position – despite how truly beloved they are by performers. Sea-music scholar Revell Carr expressed the idea once (I am paraphrasing) that (White) American chanty performers in particular were open to the potential of these "African-American chanties" to articulate the AMERICAN aspect of chanties (i.e. as opposed to British), with which I agree. The existence of "African-American chanties" does something to help Americans in general stake a claim in chanty "ownership" and performance. So, there are certainly several processes of identification going on; the ethnic and the national get mixed, depending on how one hopes to envision the genre. The Irish ethnic identification, mentioned by Lighter, is another one (which I have observed but could not fit in the paper!). One more dimension that I absolutely had no time to address, but which is related to the idea of "Black chanties" is multiculturalism. It's my feeling that in the last few decades, the very British (or perhaps Irish) cultural associations with chanties – and those associations can only really be generalized with respect to the "lay" public; performers (and Mudcat-types) really don't tend to be hung up that way -- …the British cultural association, and to some degree the general "White" cultural associations were challenged by multiculturalism. Performers (especially Americans, I think) have been very open to the idea that "Chanties are the product of multiple sources/influences." To their credit, I'd say that most performers would like to accept any and all possible cultural contributions. In some contexts, the vibe is such that people really want to express these "many cultural contributions."
Here is where I think that approach goes wrong, and where chantey performers and presenters become trapped by their own good intentions. The multicultural idea tends to remove ownership from any one group (e.g. in effort to remove it from the English). Alternatively, it appears to give all people equal cultural ownership. In this way, African-American "contributions" are in danger of being valued just as much as hypothetical Hawai'ian or Italian contributions. The power of Black culture to occupy the historical position as the "default" – by which "Black chanties" becomes a redundant or awkward concept – is taken away. Blacks become one among many who have bore an influence whereas, in my opinion, historical perspective must recognize Black culture as the *core*. For example: In the same way I think the "blood red" roses/red-coats is a slight of hand that turns our gaze away from African-Americans and towards 18th century Englishmen, I would go so far to claim that "John Kanaka"'s narrative bring our gaze to Hawaii or "Brindisi di Mari" brings us to Sicilian fishermen. If the early twentieth century was marked by one particular frame-of-reference (perhaps, the quest for British heritage through her sea-going traditions), the late 20th century was marked by an equally skewing frame-of-reference: multiculturalism.
Most tragic and most "trapping" of all the processes of re/presentation has been the delicate issue of the need for White performers to present "Black" material in a way that is 1) "True to themselves" and 2) Non-offensive. As Lighter points out (and I hope I was clear about in the paper), "White" performers have no reasonable choice other than to perform as themselves (or do they?) – well, what I mean to say is that they cannot be faulted for being "themselves." Who else would they be? White men were the majority of chanty singers in the 20th century, and there was no plot to erase African-American associations through their performances. This is why I say that it was more of a process of representations and presentations "corroborating" one another, through very subtle acts – choices—in what to present. Ideas are fine, but when we come to the practical task of presentation we all must ultimately make some kind of choice. In my paper for example, I was indeed uncomfortable with the fact that I don't know if Hugill got his "Blood Red" version from Lloyd. As a scholar, I try to be responsible, through my language, for example, in a footnote to the paper (or question marks in the powerpoint presentation that went with it). Yet ultimately that small detail is something that, due to all the constraints, needed to be subsumed by my larger argument. (I am appreciative that Lighter allowed me the leeway in favor of seeing my larger argument.) Presentations/performances of chanties must also often gloss over details in favor of their larger "argument." And so, perceptions gradually change based on the sum total of all these little choices that each individual is forced to make.
As to part "2" of the "trap" of presentation, specifically in relation to White singers presenting 19th century "Black" (authentic or minstrel) type songs: Some of the more conscious choices have relate to the selective changing of language of the chanties to avoid offense. I have mentioned this before, but I think it is really significant. Because even with, for example, chanties being grouped with English folksong, etc etc, if more of the historical language had been retained by revivalists it would have been impossible to hide the connections with 19th century "Black" culture and American popular culture. If chanties were still a living tradition (some may say they are – depending on how you define that), their lyrics would have naturally changed with the times (i.e. since texts were not fixed and they were often improvised). But the Revival approach has largely been to select or re-write old texts, not to reflect contemporary life. And in this selection/rewriting, racially-marking language is almost always avoided/removed. If, for example, Lloyd had taken on Nathanial Silsbee's VERSES to "Blood Red Roses," even the addition (?) of the phrase "blood red" could not make us envision an old English song. It is near impossible (nor is it desirable!) for White singers to use currently-offensive racial language in their performances unless MAYBE their performance is really clearly framed as a historical recreation or something. I have done so in a few of my YouTube recordings, which takes courage, but also helped along by the hope that people understand the purpose of it. I would not do it "live." I know some people may think I'm a crank for harping on this, but I really do think that in not using this language –language used by African-Americans and in minstrel songs and, in their time, without derisive intent— performers have unwittingly contributed to erasing the Black cultural connotations of the repertoire.
The only change I see that could happen, along the lines of re-centering African-Americans in the historical vision of chantying, is if one or more Black REVIVAL performers comes around. In our current political climate, one needs to have a Black voice saying these things – a chanty equivalent to the Carolina Chocolate Drops. On the other hand, one doesn't NEED anything. Speaking personally, as a scholar, I am not responsible for engendering some movement to change the chanty singing scene and how it is perceived. I should only report the history, as well as the current state. And the current state is such that there is no justifiable reason to force a change in the demographics or perceptions of chanty singers. My goal can only be to broaden people's frame of reference. What they do with the information is their choice, and only adds to the constant dilemma (never to be solved!) of performers in how to present themselves and their material.
The reaction to my paper included several people saying that, indeed, they thought chanties to be "British," and that they had no idea about the history I presented. At least two used the word "appropriation" in asking about the ideas in the paper. I never used the word "appropriation," as indeed I don't think the English or "Whites" appropriated chanties. As best as I can reason from the evidence (and as I say in the paper), I think White sailors were "enculturated" into the practice of using chanties; they were adopted, but not appropriated. There was sharing going on, for an extended period. Certain English writers, for example, could be said to have appropriated chanties as a SYMBOL. But I don't think "appropriation" best fits the process by which chanties, through performance and earnest scholarship, began to become enshrined as a part of British/Irish/White ethnicity. Appropriation just sounds too active, sudden, and deliberate to me.
This is quite a ramble; I'll try to express these things more coherently/formally at some point, but for now…hurrah for the Mudcat "café"!