Friday, April 1, 2016

Olio, Tyehimba Jess (Wave Books, 2016)

In today’s entertainment business and culture industries, we see numerous examples of white people doing the same thing they’ve done since they’ve been in North America: attempting to control representations of black folks. We see it in corporate hip hop, which writers such as Jessica Care Moore refer to as modern-day minstrelsy, as well as in Hollywood (from The Wire to Get On Up! to the nightly news), and in the supposedly more ‘enlightened’ literary worlds. In 2015, we witnessed two white well-known well-funded art world conceptual poets, Kenneth Goldsmith and Vanessa Place, extend the tradition of minstrelsy into the tech era, while many others engage in it in more subtle ways.

Tyehimba Jess’s new book, Olio (Wave Books, 2016) sheds some light into the roots of these practices by taking us back to the era (roughly between 1850 and 1920) in which minstrel shows thrived to reveal some uncanny similarities between this era and today. Olio is not merely a “miscellaneous mixture of heterogeneous elements,” but also “the second part of a minstrel show which features a variety of performance acts and later evolved into vaudeville.” In Jess’s “Introduction of cast of characters,” a circus-barker voice asks the reader to “fix your eyes on the flex of these first-generation freed voices,” (3) and just about every character in this book has to labor against the backdrop of the pre-electronic white “national culture” of minstrelsy (cf. books that claim minstrels like Stephen Foster invented American pop music), yet the voices and characters in Olio do not always seem constricted by the minstrel show, just as a poem or a song may be wider than the narrative of which it is ostensibly a part.

So, the first two pieces introduce two other possible frames far removed from the minstrel show: 1) Gospel singers testifying in the well-wrought European sonnet form, and 2) A music-journalist or ethnomusicologist’s collection of interviews with people who knew Scott Joplin. With these three heterogeneous framing devices, Jess creates range of various co-existing, and sometimes overlapping, perspectives that show a wide range of Black Life (or “black artistic life” if you find that qualifier necessary) during the 1850-1920 period.

We are introduced to Julius Trotter through a cover-letter he writes to W.E.B. DuBois, a voice of older male cultural legitimacy. Trotter hopes that Du Bois’ Crisis will publish the interviews he conducted during the decade after Joplin’s death on April 1, 1917. It makes sense why Trotter would feel Du Bois would be simpatico, or a fellow traveller, for Du Bois during this time did not believe that the Jazz and blues crazes of the 1920s were a fitting way to uplift the race, and Trotter’s own thoughts about the direction American music (and specifically black music) and culture has taken in the decade after Joplin’s death are hardly positive:

“Joplin’s particular brand of musical wisdom had been pawned for a far more dangerous dirge. The nation was too busy building its chorus of battle hymns to heed the diminuendo of an outdated piano professor from a previous century…. Between battles I witnessed Joplin’s music spinning inside James Reese Europe’s [1]band like a player piano gone berserk. With each war-scorched rag, I heard what seemed like the sound of my world slowly tilting off its axis. Europe took the essence of ragtime, rolled it in the grime and blood of war, and wrung something they called jazz out of each instrument, smearing it all across the world’s war-torn face.” (10)

Even though Trotter presents himself as the obsessive fan, music critic, or ethnomusicologist, the aesthetic and cultural argument Trotter makes in his appeal to DuBois is grounded in personal testimony of family history[2] Trotter has a fascinating story he’s compelled to tell (though, as we find out, Trotter is purposely withholding some crucial information from Du Bois). The son of a professional travelling musician mother who “settled down to become a piano instructor and laundress,” Trotter’s personal tragedy (the death of his mother and his family’s descent into poverty), and systematic racism (his cousin was lynched) rendered music a “luxury” he could no longer afford.

Stumbling on a performance by Scott Joplin, however, reawakened his mother’s musical cry for him (she used to play Joplin songs). Joplin slips away before Trotter is able to talk to him, and dies shortly thereafter. Trotter is soon left permanently physically disabled in World War I, and certainly is traumatized by the experience as he is by the childhood loss of his mother. A Freudian critic or psychologist could use these personal scars as an excuse to invalidate Trotter’s assessment of culture, yet Jess himself beautifully suspends (or, better, distributes) judgment. So, even if one doesn’t agree with Trotter’s anti-jazz sentiments, or idea that the pre-recorded era of ragtime is a golden age of black (and American) music, many can identify with this detective searching for clues. Something did radically change in American music during and immediately after World War One, for the better or the worse, or both.

Was this historical change because of racism? Was it because of the development of radio and records during this period (Joplin stands as one of the last of the pre-recorded musicians)? Olio creates narrative suspense by withholding answering, or even addressing, these questions, at least in a blatant way.

Instead, Jess turns his attention an earlier piano player, the “autistic savant,” born in slavery, Blind Tom, whose piano playing has made millions for his masters. His piano playing can remind “the Rebs what they’re fighting for--/black, captive labor….He/ hitches fingertips to keys, hauls Dixie/ slowly out of the battered upright’s teeth/ like a worksong dragged across cotton.” (15) In The Bethune Plantation where Tom labored, there were “No groans/ allowed, just high steppin’ celebration.” (17).

W.C. Handy (owner of the first black-record label in the 1920s) meets Blind “Tom” as a youth, and in Jess’s words, says, “Ol’ Blind Tom must be some great Hoodoo/ of sound workin’ them keys. He’s got that mojo-/magic hard. Gets some whites steamed, boils their blued/ spirits ‘cause he don’t care ‘bout fending folks…..they say that blind boy got crackers all scared/ and warned against messin’ up his music.” (22) Joplin, by contrast, did care about offending the white folks, so do Trotter and many of the personal testimony sonnets sung by the Fisk Jubilee Singers woven (or peppered) throughout this collection.

In Trotter’s first interview, with Della Marie Jenkins, RN, a Garveyite, he is forced to confront some truths that challenge his myth of Joplin as a standard of musical and cultural purity (in contrast to what he sees as the debased form of the post war 20s); when she tries to get him to admit/confess that Joplin was writing “Coon Songs” (“that sounds like the kind of music maybe needs to get lost”), Trotter fumbles for an answer, unable to defend his hero against her accusation (even though Jess later provides two quotes from Joplin that he could’ve used 134; 140). Jess does a great job of showing both sides without necessarily taking sides: When Trotter asks her what Joplin played, she responds “Some spirituals, but they wore too much pride to be prayerful.”

In Trotter’s next interview, Sam Patterson[3] seems to agree with Trotter’s assessment that the war “caused more than a loss of people, but ideas. Like the music of Joplin’s” (32) when he says, “whole world seems sold on racing away from wherever it’s been. Hooked on leaving its past behind without a trace. Especially after a war” (62), but even though Patterson and Trotter agree about the cultural regress, Patterson claimed it happened even earlier than Trotter had posited:

In the late 1890s, “folks was all okay with (Joplin’s music ‘never rushin nowhere) back when he first started playin that Maple Leaf and such….but it changed. He thought putting those pieces on paper would help hold them the way he heard them—make them stay proper and well-behaved…..but see, it didn’t work out quite exactly like that. Once those rags were on paper, every ten-fingered bowler-wearing stud would put his hands all over those tunes. Walk them slow at first, till they learned all their ins and outs. They was polite with them tunes, till they figured out how to roll ‘em out a little faster, and them make ‘em strut and swagger more with each stride……”(65)

Patterson teaches Trotter that the technology of sheet music which dominated American mass-cultural music during Joplin’s heyday, was not necessarily less alienating than the slavery Blind Tom was subject to or the post-World War I dominance of records and the radio that Trotter laments (in his creation of the James Reese bogeyman). Sheet music may have done more harm to Joplin than help him in the long term (back in the days of The Globe Theatre, for instance, playwrights purposely refused to print out the folios and quartos of their plays for fear of such theft of intellectual property).

In light of Patterson’s comments, we may look at the relationship between Joplin, and the two earlier Blind piano players who appear in Olio. Neither Blind “Tom” Wiggins (1849-1908), nor John William “Blind” Boone (1864-1927) committed their work to paper are thus not as famous as Joplin, yet Boone suggests that this is why his own livelihood as a musician was more free than Joplin’s. From Boone’s perspective, recording (even if only on paper) was a form of slavery; he was able to own his music (even though his main gig was as a note for note imitator) more than Joplin whose music was stolen (and not just by Irving Berlin). Once again, Jess isn’t trying to tell us that Boone’s perspective is necessarily more truthful than Trotter’s or Joplin’s, but it’s not any less so either.

Boone also challenges other pieties of Trotter’s when Trotter says,  Mr. Boone, I rather don’t think of myself as a performer in a minstrel show:

Most don’t. But fact is that the minstrel show is only a grin or a shuffle away from any living Negro trying to tell his own true, full story and survive in the world. The true story, now. There’s a way to tell it straight and true, so that the joke’s not on you, but all around you. The whole round riddle of it: how you came to be where you at, and what folks told you along the way that got you there.” (88)

In bringing up the theme of minstrelsy that is so central to this book, Boone’s attitude and perspective seem ultimately closer to Jess’s attitude than Trotter’s (who is hardly a “reliable, omniscient” narrator). Boone not only contrasts himself to the later Joplin, but also to the earlier Blind Tom in his attitude toward making music his livelihood. Boone continues:

“I’ve had the same motto for 30 years. “Merit, not sympathy, wins.” I started that because I didn’t want folks to come and see me expecting to see a Blind Tom act. That man was a slave until the day he died. Barely knew it, too. When he played, it was like he was free….but….(95). Boone speaks in haikus, as well as in verse that is more “free” (and conversational) than the sonnets used for Olio’s other characters who speak, or are spoken of, in verse. You might say he has the widest “musical” range. Like the conjoined twins, Millie and Christine McCoy (two, and one, of the books heroines), Boon sees his “deformity” as a blessing (see “Blind Boone’s Vision”), and shows his own heroic John-Henry-like battle with “their invisible piano man/ with his windup gut/less guts of paper rolls.” (“Blind Boone’s Pianola Blues,” 118).

Yet, unlike Joplin, Blind Boone always saw paper as part of the racist enemy; in contrast to Joplin who made a pact with paper (and rejected hoodoo and minstrelsy), Boone seems to have some of Blind Tom’s “hoodoo” in him, as his life work:

Might be just to prove some tasks
Ain’t meant to be neatly played
Out on paper and into air,
But rather should tear
Out from lung, heart, and brain
With a flair of flicked wrists
And sly smile above the 88s….(119)

In considering Jess’s portrait of Blind Boone, one may remember that Jess himself was an award-winning slam poet before he completed this epic/operatic Olio on paper. Yet, even if Olio itself is structured like a “minstrel show,” that doesn’t mean that it’s not also structured like an “opera” (like Joplin’s Treemonisha). In fact, one of Jess’s achievements is to show that an opera written by a black man becomes a minstrel show (whether one likes it or not) (see 124—the Carmen Ledieux interview. Ledieux is much more in tune with the 1920s musical zeitgeist than Trotter is).

Conspicuously absent from this book is any detailed account of Joplin’s libretto for Treemonisha, The Treemonisha story does bear some similarities with the story of one of Olio’s main historical characters, Edmonia Lewis (Wildflower). Treemonisha is educated, “enlightened,” by a white woman, while Wildfire (her Ojibwe name) “lay not far from the campus of Oberlin, where her older brother had sent her to learn how to mold herself into a brown survival of whiteness, her brother who had moved out west and made money from the gold rush had come back to rescue his little sister…..she would learn America from the front steps instead of the back door, where her intelligence could be chiseled into a finely pointed tool.” (185)

While Treemonisha chases the more Afrocentric conjurors out, Wildflower is deeply concerned with advocating for the race by holding herself up to, or at least working within, Euro-standards of artistic value, but is falsely accused by white Oberlin students of being a conjurer (the kind of “hoodoo” Blind Tom was accused of possessing, or being possessed by); Treemonisha is abducted and about to be thrown into a wasps’ nest until rescued in Joplin’s libretto by her friend Remus, while Wildfire is put on trial until rescued by black lawyer, John Mercer Langston, before she is able to escape America for Europe where “she sells her statuary for up to 50Gs.”[4]

We see Edmonia at work in some of the book’s most powerful poetry. The poems based on Edmonia’s sculptors of Hiawatha, Cleopatra and Hagar In The Wildnerness—in which we hear the characters speak of their relationship with their creator-- make me ache to see these sculptors (and not on Wikipedia, but to be in the same space as them). Hiawatha is “conjured from Ojibwe legend/ doctored into Longfellow’s pen,” and “Indian Combat,” is “Stolen from marble, pressed into slaughter.” (193). “Colonel Robert Shaw: 1865” is poetry that art-critics could learn from (just as Shelley’s “Ozymandias” gave a previous generation of art critics a lively phrase or two), as Jess breathes life into this sculpture by focusing on the black Union soldiers that made this sculpture possible. For instance:

Alison, who’d sworn not to die
 till whipping his old master, his father,
before his freed mother’s eyes….(197)

Her hands somehow searched out/
each tale those men carved into my face,
scraping away marmoreal
myths that define which race/
might rule. “

According to Wikipedia, “as an artist of color, Edmonia Lewis had to be hyperconscious of her stylistic choices because her largely white audience often gravely misread her work as self-portraiture. In order to avoid this, her female figures typically possess Eurocentric features.[29] Lewis had to balance her own personal identity with her artistic, social, and national identify, a tiring activity that affected her art [48]

When Jess writes (in the voice of Lewis’ Cleopatra), “Her brown hands/ bore me alabaster smooth,” we may also see analogies with Jess’ portrait of the musician (one generation her junior) Sissieretta Jones (1868-1933).  In the words of her apprentice, Shoe, Sissierietta “knew how to let folks into one mask and out through another.” She understood how ”opera was wearing her as a mask:”

 “Each one of the crowd wantin to see her belt it out the way the white folks would do—even better. All that pearly white song flowin out that pretty black skin, all that European sound spillin out that Ethiopian river of a throat…..She wanted to resurrect all the church she could muster out of those opera stories. She wanted to muscle arias out of all those spirituals” (155).

These lyric portraits of Sissieretta and Edmonia—which ostensibly have nothing to do with the Trotter detective plot—tend to support “Blind” Boone’s claim that minstrelsy is the unavoidable situation of any black performer and creator, and that that must be acknowledged if there’s any hope of going beyond it. This is perhaps the main thing the book’s cast of characters have in common, from the “freak show” Millie and Christine McKoy to the “real authentic coons,” Bert Williams and George, all wear masks.

On the other hand, The Fisk Jubilee singers testifyin through the fire of church bombings resemble the early Du Bois’ faith in “moral suasion”—not so much trying to profit by entertaining the white man by giving him racial stereotypes, but rather we see the obsessive will of these characters to prove themselves worthy by white standards of “humanity” (as Jubilee singer, Minnie Tate puts it):

“Here we are, strapping voice to scripture
so the world might love Black breaths livin’ free…” (67)

Or, in “We’ve Sung Each Free Day Like It’s Salvation:”

“We’ve strapped our voices to the slaver’s scripture
to loosen up chains from tangled cane fields.”

Some of these sonnets are among Olio’s most heart-wrenching moments, as in this poignant portrait that shows how white supremacy creates black-on-black crime:

“I’d fallen for my mistress’s candy bribe
snitched on how Mama had “borrowed” rice
from the big house. Good Lord, the cost of that.
Till then, I’d never seen my mother slapped.
She shook. Smoldered. Then dragged me to the river
To drown her daughter who had learned slavery
So well, along with herself. I’ll never
Let them twist you so! She said. That very
Moment came a voice from ashore. Aunt Ruth
Shouted: Stop! Have Faith! We can pray this through!” (128)

Although Jess generally focuses on individual rather than systemic forms of racism,
even in these seemingly submissive spiritual sonnets, there’s a burgeoning sense of defiant separatism, and cultural pride:

“Mother was freed when she was a girl. Went
to school with whites—chose to school me at home.” (67)

Throughout Olio, Jess shows himself as a formal innovator: many of these sonnets are dialogue diptych sonnets, or what Jess calls “syncopated” sonnets” such as “Duet: Blind Boone Meets Blind Tom, 1889” (pg. 26) and “Millie-Christine’s Love Story.” Both these sonnets represent the “paradox” of 2 in 1, with intellectual troping that may better the metaphysical conceits for which John Donne is celebrated. Since “the creator consigned the McKoys with the grace and grit to be conjoined twins,” their heroic story for self-determination (“we buy liberation…from each gawking crowd….we’ve bought land that once enslaved our parents”) resembles the later Bert Williams and George Walker, who seeing whites dress up in black face to make money with their minstrel shows, decided to present themselves as “real authentic coons” (“We’ll make theatre about face: /making theatre about us”).

At its most bizarre, Jess’s minstrel show has 19th century escaped slave Henry “Box” Brown “blacken the voice of the poet Mr. John Berryman’s “Henry” from The Dream Songs and liberate himself from literary bondage, “ which could definitely serve as a chapter in an academic dissertation in the near future. In addition, the book includes instructions (with photos) on how to fold some of the poems up in order to escape the literary bondage of a book “about” music that includes no music.

Yet, while all this happens, we still haven’t heard if W.E. B. Du Bois has written Trotter back, but when Trotter reappears in the book’s final piece, it does seem that he’s learned something from some of the people he interviewed. In this letter to his sister (not officially part of his interviews, but found in the family bible), Trotter presents himself in a very different light than the way he presented himself to Du Bois, as he speaks of his life since the end of World War I (taking up the story where he had left off in his letter to Du Bois).

Because of his physical deformity from the war, Trotter is no longer able to work as a Pullman Porter, so he gets a job as a fireman on another train, whose name takes on mythic dimensions and symbolic meaning: The 20th Century Limited:

“Its engine had burned itself out. Although I’d advised that we overhaul the gaskets before we left Chicago, our engineer merely scowled and ordered us full speed ahead. We’d sweat ourselves down to the bone to keep her running….until the main pistons blew.” (205) He walks away from the broken-down train, the sign of the rush of progress, and witnesses the minstrel show Sissierietta’s assistant formed: The North Star Travelling Negroes, and sees a clear contrast:

“I looked across the junction to the 20th Century, glowering in the distance. It was waiting for me like 10,000 miles of steel footsteps, churning its chamber full of scalding steam. I looked at it for a long time, P. Long enough to know I had fed so much of myself to its ever-hungry furnace that I had to turn away to save any scraps I had left.” (100 years later, many feel the same way about the 21st Century Ltd.). He decides to sit in at the piano:

“It turned out that somehow I’d remembered enough of me to work that piano into something that moved like music. Something that sounded not exactly right, but right enough for that moment that played on for the rest of the night till just before dawn. It also turned out that their regular piano man had fallen off drunk a few stops back in Youngston. Their manager, a small, cigar-smoking scrawl of a woman named Shoe, was in need…. I’ve struggled through most of the acts—but I’ve learned more from show to show. I’m the masked man of the caravan. The phantom of the minstrel show.”

Here, Trotter drops the mask he’s worn throughout the book, trading it in for one that embraces a wider range of black expression than he had earlier. For instance, this litany, buried in the epistolary prose, could be declaimed orally as a (Whitmanian) list poem:

I play for the cakewalk exploding across the tiny stage.
I play for the pickaninnies preening into the makeshift spotlight.
I play the old ragtime smeared with dirty lyrics and the new blues songs smoldering like brothels underneath the singer’s tongue.
I pray for our makeshift Tambo and Bones;
I play for those in the audience that laugh for the joke before the joke’s even over,
Mouthing the punch lines written in Tambo’s blackface
I play for the contortionist when he bends himself to fit the smallest of corners
And I play on to bend a waltz into tune with our singer’s Georgia-bred ear.” (207)

In this letter, we see Trotter having given up the ghost of his obsession with Joplin (who was a stand-in for his dead mother in the first place), and is no longer worried what cultural “king-makers” like Du Bois think about “gut-bucket” music. He’s accepting his role in the unavoidable minstrel show. Such a severe contrast does this letter to his sister make with the letter he wrote to Du Bois that it’s interesting to note that these letters were written on the same day. And, for those, looking for any easy conclusion to the books “cultural argument,” you may note that April 1st is not only the anniversary of Scott Joplin’s birth (and Gil Scott-Heron’s birth), but most importantly for Jess’s purposes, it’s April Fool’s day (which used to be New Year in some religions until the pope outlawed it as Pagan)….and Jess is not above an April Fool’s joke. In the end, Joplin is certainly not discredited, just the obsessive over-fetishization of him that has him currently enslaved on ‘americana’ ice-cream trucks.
This book has every right to boast of its ingenuousness.

[2] Perhaps Trotter feels that such an appeal would help persuade W.E.B. of “the relevance of its musical subject” because W.E.B’s own writing—such as Souls of Black Folks--had done so.
[3] an accomplished ragtime pianist himself….quite close to Joplin throughout his Missouri days and on until his death in 1917,
[4] Irving Berlin says the libretto shows that Joplin was not a competent dramatist (of course he also stole Joplin’s music for “Alexander’s Ragtime Band”), but he could not say so of Jess’s more complex portrayal of Edmonia Lewis and other heroines like Sissieretta Jones.

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