January 28, 2014 John Drabinski

Solidarity and cultural politics

I’ve never been a fan of how Pete Seeger renders American folk songs. His voice and musical arrangement never connected with me much at all. The voice is a bit too soaring and the arrangement a bit too, I don’t know – that thing you can’t quite name, but is how you feel and connect with musical pieces. And all of that completely misses the point once you stop thinking about personal taste, playing a song on your devices, and start thinking and remembering. Seeger died at 94. That’s a good, old age for a guy who played even older songs for so many years.

What seems more to the point, especially now at his passing, is how Seeger represented a blend of cultural politics and social commentary. I think in many ways we’ve come to understand the two as very different. Cultural politics has its passion and passionate critics. We’ve talked a lot lately about appropriation courtesy of Miley Cyrus or maybe now even Macklemore post-Grammy, we’ve talked for decades about the importance of preserving traditions, we really ought to always talk about unique kinds of heritage born of long struggle, immigrant experience, multi-generational poverty, cultural isolation, and so on. Then there is social commentary, or what we just call “politics.” To put it simply, that has to do with contesting governments, particular forms of injustice, rallying the conscience of groups and nations, advocating justice, and registering outrage in demanding something different.

Seeger was politically hard to critique, for those of us with a sharp turn to the left. He was anti-fascist, a marcher for civil rights, critic of imperial war in Viet Nam, and even lent his aged, but lively mind and body to the Occupy movement. Whatever nitpicks one might have, no one can argue that the guy retired his conscience and he didn’t take of the wrong side of history. But he was also as famous, and hopefully more so, for being a walking catalogue of American folk musical traditions.

In that life of a catalogue, Seeger embodies both the profundity and expanse of American folk musical traditions and the racial complexity of the same. His interest in African-American life and culture was not just straightforward politics; he wasn’t in this to march with MLK, Jr., then move along. Seeger engaged and reproduced African-American music with as much comfort as he did Great Plains or Appalachian traditions, singing prison and works songs alongside white protest music, spirituals alongside novelty dance tunes. Now, no one can say he wasn’t aware of this complexity. I mean, who has this kind of knowledge of American folk music, really? Very few of us, for sure. But we can see immediately how this sort of thing gets complicated and, for me, makes his legacy worth thinking about in terms of the cultural politics of racialized vernacular forms, and not just as multi-decade activism and iconic 1960s singer (a fate I worry will be his going forward).

For me, and these are just initial thoughts, Seeger can’t be easily (even if he eventually is) folded into the category of cultural appropriator, although he did just that: he played African-American music. Not just any African-American music, we should note, but music that was born of very particular forms of struggle, suffering, survival, and cultural expression from that place. I’m thinking of one song in particular, because it brings the past into the present moment in such important ways: “Midnight Special.” This is one of those songs whose history trails off into the past with an ellipsis, which, in its own way, expresses well the abyssal character of it original setting. “Midnight Special” is a Southern prison song, remembered as an expression from Parchman Farm (a frightening place while also, for that reason, the birthplace of astonishing art). I’d like to think that the song is best known as played by Huddie Ledbetter (aka Leadbelly), but I think its legacy is probably more in white artist recordings (especially Creedence Clearwater Revival). And that’s troubling. The song is about being in prison, dreaming of escape or pardon, worrying about infidelity and betrayal, missing sex, and, quite explicitly, about the abuses of police power and what we now call the prison industrial complex. When Ledbetter sings “boy, you better walk right,” that’s to be taken in all seriousness as a dire warning. You’ll end up in Parchman, waiting for a pardon or luck. And that place, as the well-known book recalls, had the reputation as “worse than slavery.”

So, to sing a song from Parchman Farm is to sing on the edges of slavery. It is also to sing from the perspective of the prisoner, whose suffering is not just that of any prisoner whatsoever (can we say such a category exists in the United States? I don’t think so), but the suffering of Black prisoners in a system and place that continued (and continues) so much of slavery’s methods, values, and cruelty.

Seeger sings this song. It was one of his key songs, in fact, as it was for so many folk musicians in the 1950s and 1960s. Here he is with Arlo Guthrie (note that he gives a verse to Leadbelly at 2:18 – calling him by his full name, not stage name – in order to trouble what might seem like a simple case of appropriation):

Listen to Leadbelly’s version here, when the musician was in his prime. This is an absolutely fabulous version and, in sound, captures so much of what Paul Gilroy calls the sublime in the early African-American tradition.

Leadbelly’s hang on the last half of “Houston,” the lyric that names already in the 1930s what we now call the new Jim Crow (for him, I think, the new slavery, sung as it was during Jim Crow), is everything. It is a memory of pain and expression of rage that needs to be heard, and can be heard clearly and without question. Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic is, for me, one long discourse that allows us to hear that moment in the song.

That moment won’t ever come in a Pete Seeger song. He never intended it to, to be clear, and that might just matter a whole lot. Because in wanting a certain sound – that mimicry that so easily becomes appropriation-as-mockery in an instant – a musician says a lot. The racial structure of the cultural forms Seeger engaged block exactly that, and that’s how it should be. I like that Seeger respected such things. You can hear it in the particular and identifiable style of his songs (that’s part of why his songs don’t connect with me, I think). He loved the traditions, but did not want to be that tradition. Instead, if I can speculate a bit, he seems to have wanted to honor that tradition’s greatness with what he did best: singing his voice, arranging in his way.

And yet there are for me significant matters of cultural politics at stake. The fact that he maintained his own style when appropriating these songs doesn’t forestall serious critical questions. I’m not entirely sure where to go with them. I do know that “Midnight Special” is a particularly important song in this context. It steps beyond, say, a standard white “folk-revival” song like “Walk Right In,” which, while a classic of Memphis-area string band music and thus a cornerstone of Southern Black music, is also a dance tune and, in that time, was what we’d now call a pop song. It’s a great song and displays Gus Cannon’s musical brilliance.

Plenty of white folkies re-did this song in the 1950s and 1960s. For better or worse.

I do avoid the merely polemical temptation against Seeger, however. I don’t want to just say, hey, the guy oversteps here and shows a kind of white privilege, showing how, once again, whiteness means unfettered access to all and everything. Not just because he only passed away yesterday. I hesitate because it’s both plainly true (his appropriation turns on just that privilege) and because, upon closer examination, Seeger actually presents an interesting case that tests our thinking about solidarity and all the ambivalence that follows. Seeger’s social commentary and political action is exceptional. He did politics with the same everyday seriousness as he did music, and maybe that shifts things a little bit. Maybe. I want this to be an open question. Because when we think of solidarity, we don’t just think of shared ideas or broad sympathies. At least I hope we go further. I hope that when we think of solidarity, we think of the willingness of a person (or people) to take on something – maybe very little, but not nothing – of the price of being the oppressed, sharing in some way what it would mean to not be where you are, but instead be in that elsewhere that calls you to express solidarity. How that something manifests itself is complicated, maybe impossible when we look too close, but for now I’m just sketching a boundary.

In his Postcolonial Melancholia book, Gilroy talks about this as a shared vulnerability and uses the activism of “the human shield” as a thumbnail sketch of what that shared sense looks like, when the comfortable act in solidarity with the imperiled. I’ve written a bit about that. Seeger did that sort of thing politically; he, like his racial and ideological predecessor Woody Guthrie, was radical left when radical meant exclusion (has it ever meant anything else in this country?). This makes me pause and think, then, about how such political declarations and commitments impact the cultural politics of musical practice, especially when that practice crosses back and forth over the most obstinate of American ideologies: the color line.

What is cultural politics when confounded, racially, by someone whose life has been an exploration of solidarity? What is the power of solidarity beyond the social and political practice of contesting policy, habits, and institutions? Is socio-political solidarity enough to alter the ethical landscape of cultural politics and the deeply rooted forms of still wholly defensible cultural nationalism? Or is that part of cultural politics, that, because they sustain a life of a people, they (must) remain resistant to boundary breaking? I’m not sure. But these are real questions. Every musical awards show, it seems like they show up again.

Rest in peace, Pete Seeger. You make these questions wonderfully and refreshingly difficult.


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Comments (26)

  1. (reposted and slightly edited from a thread at FB): I think a key part of this, as you rightfully note, is that what we mean by solidarity is at stake. I take solidarity (as I think you do) to be importantly different than agreement or sameness, but rather as a particularly situated stance where shared vulnerability is connected to willed sacrifice. Which (always?) invokes privilege in some way. the question might hinge on if that invocation is an excuse, or if it protects rather than destroys privilege (FWIW, I’m thinking a lot about solidarity these days in relation to prison hunger strikes, so that you go to Midnight Special to think about this is really important/interesting to me).

    I think one of the things I would like to hear more about from you, however (and which might help explain how Seeger seemed to be so damned self-conscious and/or cautious at the moment where solidarity might lapse/become appropriation), is an account of his pedagogy. He always seemed committed to a deeply democratic/radical pedagogy, one rooted in folk music and its methods of instruction (full participation from the start, with no “apprenticeships”). I’m not sure how this works out, but this seems especially visible in Seeger’s (ethical) citational practices (something that many, if not most, white musicians and academics are really really really bad at.)

    • John Drabinski

      This question of pedagogy is a serious one and I have been thinking a lot about it. It’s a huge question, but absolutely central to where the post begins and ends. Ethical citation means a lot to me, for the reasons you allude to, and this idea of democratic instruction vs. apprenticeship is crucial. I need to read a bit on that.

      Solidarity becomes something different in these moments, but also all the more risky. We see this in critical ethnic and related studies approaches (to speak widely, I know) to race, gender, sexuality, and class, where the identity group is moved to the center as the one who speaks, which means listening and such is often the prescribed (rightly, I think) the ethical approach to scholarship and commentary. Radical pedagogy as you sketch here is a nuance on that, and I think the arts are a particularly fecund for experimentation.

      And I guess that’s just it: Seeger strikes me as an experimenter. But he experimented with such encyclopedic knowledge of U.S. musical traditions that it is an experiment like few others. He learned a tradition (many, actually), then participated in targeted ways. I’d like to see scholars work in a similar way when they cross the color line for analysis and texts, but, for me, “Midnight Special” is a particularly fraught example. That’s why I chose it. I think it sits at the limits of a lot of this, including the practice of democratic pedagogy.

      • so, I’m mostly thinking outloud here… and this is very motivated by 1) working through my SPEP paper on failure (which I’m failing to get finished at the moment), 2) my own citational practices in that paper, 3) my own failure in my book coming out that talks at length about solidarity with prisoners but doesn’t actually have any of their own voices in that book (feeling really not good about this), 4) teaching a critical race theory course to undergrads for the first time right now, and 5) the back and forth on style/substance that has been going on at http://xcphilosophy.org over the last two weeks (and which, in the most recent post, engages with material on this blog).

        so… Pedagogy. To get more specific, I think that the resource within radical forms of pedagogy (Freire and Darder, primarily is what I have in mind) is the willingness (or demand?) of to embrace rather than reject the risk that you note, the centering of voices that are not heard or cannot be heard because of epistemological blocks (i.e epistemologies of ignorance qua Tuana, Alcoff, Mills) is dangerous and fraught with failure. transformative learning happens through, not despite, this risk. So, the thing about Seeger that I’m thinking about is in his activity as a public performer (side note: I think there is something going on in the youtube-ification of seeger performances that is weird and problematic, unless I’m singing along with him, perhaps?): Seeger didn’t just encourage audience “participation,” but always included it in performance. And as I already noted, was obsessive about citational practice (he would almost always preface performances of Guantanamera with a note about Jose Marti, for instance). He would stop in the middle of songs to teach the audience lyrics, and often explain their origins. I think this is part of the seemingly self-knowing quality that your original post notes… maybe I’m wrong, but he at least seems reflective and self-conscious about what he’s doing here. And performing this music in this way is thus already always an ethical practice, fraught with danger and risk, and therefore possibly transformative (I know this is a strong claim, so consider this a hypothesis?).

        So, in keeping with this, what would it mean for me to teach like Pete Seeger sings? 1) I don’t get to pass off other ideas as my own in front of a class, always be citing, not as a display of authority, but as a display of respect; 2) I’m not really teaching if students aren’t “singing”/talking. 3) *We* aren’t singing/talking/learning unless that singing/talking/learning continues after the performance/class. unless it leads to action (don’t mourn, organize). 4) we aren’t acting (or organizing?) unless we continue to sing/talk/learning in those actions (i still LOVE the story about his offering to sing at his HUAC testimony).

        and maybe 5) (which I’m thinking about through Kirstie Dotson’s amazing work): any invitation into the thought of others needs a disclaimer at the top, an invitation into the conversation that is sincere and is predicated on the possibility of refusal, and which rewards the work of translation between/across boundaries, and prioritizes listening over speaking (which I’m getting from Iris Young in part, but also which is probably in direct tension points 1-4).

        lastly 6) and picking up on your last point: experimentation implies (requires?) the possibility of failure. So, failure is built into the ethical practice of teaching, thinking, writing, learning, listening… and this matters. I’m just sure what it means yet.

        as I said… thinking out loud… apologies in advance.

  2. Scott Branson

    I agree with the point about Seeger’s pedagogy. The other side of this, I think, is the way that his music gets consumed (and more generally how a certain understanding of folk music gets consumed, has gotten consumed . . . this is clearest to me in the video of him with Arlo Guthrie). Seeger used his privilege and his position to collect and teach (which involves stepping out of the way), but Seeger can often become emblematic of a liberal satiety or bona fides that does nothing or goes no further. John, what I think is incredibly interesting in what you write is about the sound and the desire for the sound. Seeger didn’t do that, as you say–but one could probably do an analysis of the way his sound influences tastes and abstracts history. . . . And an interesting comparison would be the history of Leadbelly’s reception (particularly by white folk audiences and then later rock audiences) as well as his biography.

    • John Drabinski

      Consumption of folk music changes so much, in particular how memory and the racial dimensions of tradition are reproduced. I have a post for the next day or two on the Carolina Chocolate Drops and how they confound the present by reminding us that bluegrass – what we now think of as a white musical genre and even tradition – has its roots in African-American music.

      Which is to say: the conversion of sound across the color line is at once a precondition of white consumption (Seeger draws a crowd and memory for white America that Huddie Ledbetter could never), which creates a largely parasitic relationship between white artists and the Af-Am cultural tradition, and a potentially dramatic alteration of memory and the Af-Am intellectual archive.

      Gilroy’s big claim in The Black Atlantic – at least how I read him – is that sound survives these transformations because it is the sublime carriage of memory and the foundation of tradition. In that sense, we could say there are two Leadbellys: the one whom stoned white folkies consumed for his dirty, gritty authenticity and the one whose memory of “worse than slavery” is part of a long, terrifying epic of being Black in the United States. Sound, in that sense, is not just in the vocal performance and its nuance, but, perhaps even more, in the reception of the sound. (Du Bois’ final chapter of Souls of Black Folk is amazing this way, arguing for the uniqueness of African-American ears for the transmission of memory.)

      • thanks for this reminder about how the last chapter of Souls works… this comment totally helped me in class yesterday when talking about why Du Bois structures the book through the sorrow songs. We talked a bunch about the difference between visual and aural metaphors in the book.

  3. Anna

    Hi John, if I may: First, I am not sure how you can separate music into just “art” and “tradition and heritage.” Chinese opera is art and heritage, as are the songs of Native Americans, the earliest Christian chants, old Yiddish songs, Black spirituals, Baroque, Romantic Classical, jazz, rock, and so on. Where do you draw the line where music crosses over from art, and into tradition and heritage? All of them have been influenced by other music, stolen from it, appropriated it, and so on. And, in turn, they have all had the same happen to them, albeit in different ways, and with different results. Do any of these traditions (plus many more) lack “deep existential meaning” for their creators, borrowers, performers, audiences? Also, the point about Handy, at least as I understood it, was not about his “training” — it was about the complexity of how music emerges out of a diverse mix of traditions. Miles and Ellington, like many other pioneering jazz musicians, owe quite a bit to Debussy, harmonically speaking. In turn, Debussy, of course, took an embarrassingly Orientalist approach to the pentatonic scale, and did things with it unheard of in Asian music. My point is this: music, and musical influence, is a moebius strip, and I think that separating it into “art” and “heritage” always misses something essential.

    • John Drabinski

      Thanks for this, Anna, and it raises an incredibly layered, complex issues. For me, there is an important pair of distinctions here.

      First, a distinction between influence and appropriation. The former is part of the life of the arts; indeed, there is no such thing as art without influence. The latter takes place when the cultural and other relations of power are radically uneven and, in that unevenness, draw on a long history of theft, exploitation, and commodification. There is an important difference and I think that Seeger is decidedly not in the influence category – he had no desire to sound like Black artists, only to rearrange their songs in his own voice. So at some level he is an appropriator. Whether that is a problematic appropriation or not, that’s the question. My post didn’t say he was, just that he is on the line between problematic and productive. Thinking on that line is particularly illuminating, for me, for thinking about solidarity and the color line.

      Second, there is a distinction between a tradition in the arts and tradition as heritage at the foundation of cultural or racial identity. When the arts are held at a distance, you can easily give over to kinds of appropriation and transformation, especially when we can call it influence. But when the arts are the very foundation of identity – a claim Du Bois, Locke, Gilroy, and so many others have made in systematic fashion – we are in a different space, especially when you have the history of racial exploitation and identity theft at the center of this cultural “exchange.” That’s part of being American. You can call it unfair or wrong or bad, but it’s where and who we are. History makes this moment. I’m trying to think about Seeger as a boundary crosser who did the musicological work and a lot of political solidarity, then made a cultural leap. What’s the role of cultural nationalism here? Open question.

      In the end, too, I think “Midnight Special” is an exceptional case, given how deeply it draws on very specific racialized experience.

      Hope that helps clarify some things (even if you don’t agree!).

  4. Anna

    The above refers to a Facebook conversation — apologies if some of my response references points made there, instead of this thread.

  5. For the most part, your explicit business seems to be mostly merely asking. In the hands of some writers, this is really a way of expressing normative conclusions, but I take you at your word.

    But, it is clear that you’re *worried* about Seeger’s use of “black music”. And more than worried! Consider this crucial passage: “the guy oversteps here and shows a kind of white privilege, showing how, once again, whiteness means unfettered access to all and everything.” You don’t want to *just* claim this. You want to claim this and more besides. Here, it seems to me, you express an actual judgment – that Seeger is rightly subject to criticism for having exercised unfettered access to all and everything. (…well, at least to some musical forms.) You go on to wonder if, perhaps, his wrong in having exercised that power is ameliorated by his solidarity with the struggle. Do I have the view right so far?

    But what’s the problem? Simply exercising a privilege that unjustly attaches to one’s status is not wrong. I walk down the street without fear, but my feminist friends have convinced me that this a privilege I exercise on account of my being male. But justice does not require that I walk down the street in fear (or refrain from walking). Rather, justice requires that we arrange things so that a power currently reserved for men (and hence a privilege) is available to women as well (and hence no longer a privilege). In general, it is in the nature of hierarchy that what is good and worthy is reserved for the powerful. Usually (I’d guess) the thing to do is to break the hierarchy, making available to all what had been reserved for the mighty.

    [By the way: sometimes, it turns out that what had been thought to be good and worthy is really not; but was merely thought to be good and worthy on account of its being reserved for the mighty. But playing the blues seems to me to be something that *really is* good and worthy.] [Also by the way: the power to appropriate has often enough been available to African Americans (even as slaves) that I doubt that the power to appropriate musical forms is a *privilege*. But it would probably be most educational to suppose that it is privilege and see what follows.]

    Maybe you mean this stuff about “wholly defensible cultural nationalism” and “sustaining the life of a people” to do the justificatory work. But it is obscure to me how that might proceed. In fact, I am dubious that it will work out, but interested to see if the details are persuasive.

    Sorry for the dissertation! I am trying to be clear.

    • John Drabinski

      It’s clear enough. I think a lot of what you ask about is in my comment above, to Anna’s reply.

      Unfettered access to cultural forms is problematic. I start from this assumption, and it is a dissertation to explain why. Tried to sketch it in the reply to Anna and also in my previous post titled “Slavery, memory, property.” It does seem to be particularly problematic when it crosses the color line so flippantly and uncritically – I hear that in your remarks. It’s as if these cultural forms are just any commodity to be enjoyed and taken on as your own plaything. That seems to me to be almost a caricature of whiteness and, yes, privilege.

      For me, it’s an ethical question: respect the cultural form. Respect means changing the way you might approach it, not pretending it does not exist or, god forbid, feigning the sort of suffering on the other side of the line when it is not yours. Cultural nationalism might have real footing here. As I said above, from Du Bois to Locke to Gilroy, there is a long-standing argument for cultural nationalism. Also arguments against (in all three of those thinkers, in fact, too), but here I think we can start seeing why some form of nationalism is warranted as, if nothing else, a critical tool.

  6. Pete Seeger was blacklisted from 1952 to 1968. That isn’t being privileged.

    Regarding the implication of this article that white people shouldn’t record songs written by black people, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr appreciated Pete Seeger’s adaptation of “We Shall Overcome” when he heard Seeger perform it in a 1957 concert, and quoted the lyrics in his final sermon in 1968.


  7. John Drabinski

    My remarks is that white performance of songs from the African-American cultural tradition are fraught and worthy of close critical attention. Traditions aren’t like convenience stores, with products available for open, universal consumption. Were traditions like that, culture would be boring, flat, and akin to mathematical equations that could be produced anywhere, at anytime, by anybody.

  8. Yes, white performance of songs from the African-American cultural tradition are fraught and worthy of close critical attention–it is a shame you utterly failed to provide such attention.

    The most amazing thing about this post is how, from top to bottom, you manage to speak out of both sides of your mouth in the most passive aggressive way. Like your comment above–are you really suggesting that Seeger approached folk music like a convenience store for universal consumption? I’ll say it again: amazing! (Thanks, Alex for your much kinder thoughts on this “style” of jdrabinski.)

    The complete absence of any information about Seeger’s blacklisting, his support for unions, or his creation of radical songs (“If I Had a Hammer”) is scandalous.

    More importantly, to pen an entire piece about appropriation without knowing or acknowledging what Seeger actually thought or said about his relationship to black music and the folk tradition (of which his a part, not simply a consumer) is irresponsible.

    If you are authentically interested about Seeger’s relationship to the black tradition, and about the dynamic of folk music in general, my suggestion would be to read the interview he did for Paul Zollo, published in Songwriters on Songwriting. http://books.google.com/books/about/Songwriters_on_Songwriting.html?id=BT8UAQAAIAAJ

    Sure, you will find moments where he displays some privilege-thought, but the depth of his attitudes and insights are actually a compelling place to start such a discussion. Are you even aware that he and Leadbelly were contemporaries, and had conversations about appropriation–which was not simply a one-way street?

    This single post of yours is perhaps a more insidious act of cultural appropriation (of Seeger as well as Cannon and Leadbelly) than anything Seeger may have committed in his entire career as an honest, plain spoken, forthright radical activist and artist.

    • John Drabinski

      I think “insidious act” is a little over the top. You can dislike my writing style, but it’s worth remembering that this is a blog post, not a book or book chapter. As such, it isn’t a research piece. It’s a reflection.

      What you call passive-aggressive or both sides of my mouth is a reflection of my own ambivalence about Seeger as a figure in American culture. You have a very strong take, obviously, and see him as fairly uncomplicated. Me? I think a lot about heritage, memory, history, and tradition in African-American and Afro-Caribbean thought, so his death prompted this thinking. It’s not so uncomplicated for me. He’s a cultural figure and can be discussed critically as such.

      Depth of thought and knowledge is a given with Seeger. I tried to make that clear by noting that very few, if any of us could ever have his sort of encyclopedic knowledge of American folk traditions. Also said that he was real about politics, not just for show. You definitely missed those parts.

      What I find interesting about him as a musical archive and political actor is that he pushes well across the color line in so many ways. So, he’s a compelling case for thinking about both the limits and possibilities (see, ambivalent space) of cultural nationalism and solidarity – two issues that concern me a lot as a writer and thinker.

      In the end, you see me calling him a bad cultural appropriator and of course I did not such thing. I talked into a space of ambivalence and tried to describe getting there. If you don’t have a taste for exploratory writing, well, then you won’t like my blog space, which is my own exploratory, first take writing on issues of memory, race, and the like. I do write polished, exhaustively researched, and over-documented articles and books too! Just not here.

  9. simon

    Super interesting post! I’m writing from up in Toronto, where Seeger tributes are abound, especially on the CBC. I wonder if it’s the same in different towns in the US?

    But aside from that, I wonder if it might be helpful to add in how the meaning of racial solidarity (and therefore maybe these questions about appropriation) has really shifted in the 70-some years Seeger was performing. Namely, especially in the US, class politics/analysis as all but evaporated from the idea of race solidarity – a thing that seems much more intrinsic to the praxis of it in the middle decades of the 20th c (and before). Indeed, one could even look at the use of “We Shall Overcome” as an example of its earlier labor-laden evocations to one being “about racism”.

    I’m definitely not myself in the camp saying that class is more important than race, or something like this, but that I think the relationship between those systems were talked about in different ways in the, say, 1940s. Or even back to Guthrie.

    Thanks for the post!

  10. John Drabinski

    Simon, periodizing these concepts is exceptionally helpful. That sort of language has to be understood in those shifting moments, so I’m glad you’ve underscored that difference.

    I’m going to think about this for awhile, and the example of “We Shall Overcome” is particularly helpful. Sorry to not have anything declarative at this moment – just really appreciating this comment a lot. Thanks!

    • re: this example… have you read the preface to McWhorter’s Racism and Sexual Oppression in Anglo-America? She writes very nicely here about this song, its singing, and the complicated intersections of race and sexuality.

      • John Drabinski

        I know the title, but never have tracked it down. But with this comment, I’m doing just that!

  11. I totally agree that the tone of my comment was over the top. I appreciate your considered response and willingness to publish my comment regardless.

    Your post speaks about a topic that is important, and I thank you for that.

    I didn’t miss your assessments of Seeger’s credibility as an artist and activist. Rather, I felt that you didn’t engage with the content of either–that is, Seeger’s views of artistic tradition and activism, and their corresponding responsibilities and potentials. I don’t think that discussing him critically as a cultural figure can meaningfully take place without engaging with those ideas.

    Being new to your blog, I didn’t realize that these were not your intentions. In that light, my comments seem rather absurd.

    Questions of style and interpretation aside, your post clearly identifies Seeger as a cultural appropriator–as yet another example of white privilege’s unfettered access to all and everything. The respect you pay him allows you to consider him a test case for whether a commitment to solidarity can mitigate that. I mean, that is the crux of the biscut, is it not? Cultural appropriation is problematic, and solidarity is beneficial. Are these not two poles between which you are pulled?

    What I would like to contribute to this discussion is the concept that cultural appropriation is not separate from cultural production. To view Seeger as merely an appropriator (and not as a practicioner, collaborator, teacher, student, and creator) is to approach the questions you raise with one arm tied behind your back. You will of course not be very swayed to reconsider his cultural appropriation when it is conceptualized as something he takes, rather than as an interaction between him and a dynamic society. Were people not thirsty for protest songs? Why did that style you dislike become popular?

    Likewise with the question of solidarity. To be useful, you can’t simply have solidarity–you must build it. Conceptualizing solidarity in terms of shared sacrifice or vulnerability may be useful, but is incomplete in the sense of what it takes to change society; for that we need struggle. Is the African-American tradition of resistance not applicable to other struggles? How are these type of cultural appropriations, which aim to transform society and get rid of oppression, problematic?

    Only if you don’t value struggle, and don’t think that Seeger’s music and activism encouraged people to struggle, could I see why he doesn’t move the needle for you in terms of his legacy escaping the quicksand of cultural appropriation. Based on the way you contextualize him, it is not clear to me that you consider these to be meaningful. Unless his cultural appropriation really is that bad.

  12. Marcus Stanley

    I am also coming here from the Facebook thread, where I left a comment questioning the use of ‘appropriation’ in the context of the arts. In your reply to Anna above you attempt to draw a distinction between influence and appropriation based on power differentials between the communities involved. This strikes me as deeply problematic. To take a more extreme analogy which follows similar logic to your claim, one would not argue that interracial marriage should be illegal because relationships between races with historical power differentials must be seen as rape.

    A related issue is the implicit use of property metaphors for artistic production. Indeed, the idea of ‘appropriation’ fundamentally analogizes artistic production to property (of a community or an individual artist). Your ‘convenience store’ metaphor above is also based on seeing art as economic property. When art enters the economic sphere and monetary compensation is involved, then of course it does become property (this is what intellectual property and copyright is about, the division of monetary gains from artistic production). Here illegitimate appropriation is very possible and is essentially theft. However, the sphere of art goes far beyond its intersection with economics. The application of economic property metaphors to art imposes assumptions of scarcity that deny ways in which art is and must be generative, generous, and creative to function well. Through influence (better termed inspiration) artistic creation doesn’t use up resources, it creates new ones. Art crosses barriers in order to create, while property claims impose barriers to prevent creation. Denying this because of a political agenda concerning injustice subordinates the creative power of art to political ideology.

    These kinds of barriers have a segregationist logic. Defining a sphere of art that is uniquely the property of the black community and should not be ‘trespassed’ by white imitators, or whose influence should not reach out into the entire American community, effectively ghettoizes black cultural contributions. It takes the black contribution from the absolute center of the broader American culture, where it belongs, and puts it off to the side. Black Americans are Americans as well as black and their art is a central part of the entire American tradition, which would be unrecognizable without it. Cutting off the black tradition in this way also creates fundamental problems in appreciating great black musicians who consciously saw themselves as creating high art products informed by and meant to compete with European high art (think of Scott Joplin’s operas, Duke Ellington’s symphonies), and also the long tradition of great black artists working in a pop vernacular emerging from light opera and ‘art’ songs where blues influences were somewhat lesser (Paul Robeson, Marian Anderson, even Nat King Cole). At the extreme it can lead to elevating black artists with a more ‘primitive’ sound who the white interpreter can see as more ‘authentic’ and ignoring the brilliant black innovators who fused vernacular black music with white folk influences and European classical traditions to create the foundations of so many 20th century popular music genres.

  13. John Drabinski

    I have a hard time believing you read my post, Marcus, if that’s your takeaway. I can’t discuss “segregationist logic” if you don’t read the post as concerned in part with the first term of the title: solidarity.

    And if you see claims to heritage and tradition as “ghettoization,” then I think you need to reflect on the meaning of cultural and racial identity – it will break down the meaning of these terms and return them to you in, for lack of a better way of putting it, life-affirming shape. To say, for example, that there is a Jewish tradition does not mean Jews are apart from humanity, “primitive” (really? that’s your takeaway?), or any such thing. It means identity comes from somewhere. “Difference” is the word we can use here. What’s interesting to me here is that I’m sure most on this thread wouldn’t fret about white ethnic (Irish, Jewish, Italian, etc.) identity being different and understood on its own terms, but when it comes to African-American identity, all of the sudden folks want to consume it all without question or restraint. That’s very American. In the worst sense.

    To the other point of your reply, even as it goes quite far outside my own claims, you can (maybe) say that art goes beyond economics in the cash-money sense. Sure. No one has ever argued to the contrary, so that’s critiquing a straw man. But art isn’t non-economic in the sense of tradition and culture. There is accumulation and expenditure, conservation, investment, divestment, and so on, where the capital in question is cultural identity. See my remarks on the African-American archive as memory and heritage here:


    That’s a starter set of sentences. I think you and others should consider having a bit more respect for those who would want to hold on to cultural identity and its external markers (maybe consider parallel cases that you don’t shrug off). The lack of respect comes off as imperial and voracious because it is – predictable, but, for me, still jarring. Perhaps a bit of time spent reading Du Bois, Locke, Gilroy, and others is needed before writing off these sorts of claims as “ghettoization” (a term that solves the issue because it assumes self-possession to be a negative).

    So, in the interest of bluntness and honesty, I will say that this sort of “don’t hold on to your tradition, let us have as much of it as we like” is exactly the kind of thing called white privilege: the assumption, assertion, and (in this case) slash and burn argumentation for unfettered access. That’s been so deeply contested by so many non-white people for a century and a half in writing, many more centuries in conversation and protest. Either all those people are crazy (an odd claim) or you and others on this thread need to pause, listen, read, and consider that maybe cultural nationalism has real meaning beyond your largely ridiculing and stereotyping remarks.

  14. Anna

    John, you say “What’s interesting to me here is that I’m sure most on this thread wouldn’t fret about white ethnic (Irish, Jewish, Italian, etc.) identity being different and understood on its own terms, but when it comes to African-American identity, all of the sudden folks want to consume it all without question or restraint. That’s very American. In the worst sense.” I think that several distinctions need to be made here: As someone who is Jewish, but lacking in any Jewish cultural or religious identity (having been born in the U.S.S.R., where such things were not exactly encouraged), and as someone who is a part of an ongoing diaspora, it is rather strange for me to see how “identity” is this singular thing that one can hold on to, untouched and unsullied by unwanted others. It seems to me that identities, whether personal, cultural, or collective, are dynamic practices in which we engage together over time. I am not sure what it means to understand an identity “on its own terms” – does this mean that an identity is inherently monological, or ought to be so? Does that mean that my identity is ONLY and ALWAYS what I say it ought to be, and if anyone tries to share in it, to contribute to it, to add on to it, or to draw from it, I am somehow harmed, regardless of the nature of that contribution? If cultural nationalism is really how we ought to be thinking about our identities, ought I be upset every time a non-Jew eats a bagel and lox, or every time a non-Jew writes a book about the Holocaust, or Israel — or performs “Fiddler on the Roof”? Or even works klezmer music into a jazz tune? Or use actors with terrible fake Russian accents in television and films — for decades!?

    The thing is this: Unless one is engaged in some terrible, harmful act, I have no problem with people doing any of it — they are welcome to borrow, to comment on, to quote, to appropriate, to integrate, to make it their own. Someone respectfully engaging with my culture is a good thing — it creates opportunities for dialogue, it opens up the requisite moral spaces for much-needed conversations, and yes, I think it deepens and broadens my own culture.

    Except that we cannot even say “culture” — it is “cultures,” really. It is intersectionality: one is African-American, or Chinese-American, or Russian-Jewish-American, and none of these titles securely locate us in one particular cultural and discursive space that must be defended and protected from intruders. All of these identities can, and should, be unpacked further – not because we need a further exercise in exclusionary identity politics, but because in so doing, we realize how much richer, and interrelated, all of these traditions are. Whatever straw men you might have in mind about a reverence for Irish, Jewish, Italian, etc. “white identities” that is absent from an understanding of Black identities are, well, just that — at least to me. I am pretty sure that people who are committed to the notion of art-as-mutual-creation would be just as worried about an Irish musical ghetto as they would be about a Black one.

    Nobody is being “voracious.” This was never about “consumption,” unless “consumption” is oddly understood as “engagement with.” Nobody here is advocating helping themselves to Black music and to art as if it were some cheese on a shelf. It seems quite possible to hold on to one’s tradition at the same time as one’s tradition is changing, expanding, and engaging with many others. Should the poetry of Langston Hughes be locked away from “outsider” access for fear of “consumption”? And what about jazz, America’s greatest gift to the musical world — should we ghetto-ize that, too? Or only the jazz that did not come from the somewhat “whiter”, West coast cool jazz traditions? What kind of “restraints” are appropriate, and how should they be exercised? Given that we probably share a great deal of understandings about what inappropriate, or disrespectful, or unfair, or even downright criminal uses of cultural capital look like (such as outright theft), it is unclear what you mean by “cultural nationalism” here, other than the dispersal of the multivocality of cultures into their respective, and exclusive, camps.

  15. John Drabinski

    I’m really not sure how to reply to this and the others, except to say that if the cultural appropriation of African-American expression is something you find either a mystery (what is the crazy thing called having an identity?!) or unproblematic (ignoring the long history of protest against such appropriation and complex discourse around it), then we’re in a non-starter place. I can’t rehash an entire intellectual tradition for people who are plainly dismissive from the outset.

    Same goes with the idea of cultural nationalism. There’s plenty written and it is a complicated idea. Not worth articulating in a largely dismissive thread, to be honest.

    I think in fact all of those white ethnic groups have legitimate complaints about outsider representations and appropriations. You might not care about anything in that regard, Anna, but that’s you. I’d hesitate before generalizing across white ethnic lines, and even more across racial lines. Otherwise you end up wearing a Native American headdress trying to explain how it’s just like the goyim who are eating at Bruegger’s in Hartford. I doubt you want to be that person.

    Part of the missed connection here, not just in Anna’s but in other comments, is how casually African-American cultural traditions are treated, as if it were all circulating in a space untouched by legacies of racism and exploitation. Or as if this tradition were just some artworks made to buy and sell. Again, not sure what to say except that you’ve got to do some serious reading and thinking before taking such grand and sweeping stands in favor of a kind of free-market of cultural exchange.

    • John Drabinski

      And, again, to ask it: did you read my original post? I offered an interpretation of Seeger as an ambivalent – in the most productive sense – cultural figure. Not as a bad guy appropriation machine!

  16. Anna

    John, I think that it is more than a little troubling of you to continue to either misread or to create even more strawmen in your last response: First of all, I do not find the cultural appropriation of African-American culture a “mystery” — I made a distinction between the more insidious kinds of appropriations versus engagement. Second, I am not sure how you find anything that I have said “dismissive.” Disagreement does not mean “it does not matter.” It just means we disagree. In fact, I explicitly asked you to explain what you mean by “cultural nationalism.” Telling me to basically go away and read seems to me like the dismissive attitude here. Fourth, “wearing a Native American headdress”? Really? Other than being a cheap shot, see my first point in this message. Finally, you are back to talking about art in terms of the market and “buying and selling,” when this is something that several of us have said we were explicitly not talking about. It is certainly fine to disagree about all of this, I think, but let’s at least do it using the terms and understandings that are actually in play here.

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