Monday, June 19, 2017

Should Cultural Appropriation By Elvis Be Condemned?

Probably I should not post something like this on Juneteenth, but I have become increasingly frustrated by what seems to me a very misguided discourse on cultural appropriation.  While I think that there are cases that deserve condemnation, a great deal of what is being denounced I think should not be denounced.  Indeed, without cultural appropriation I contend that we would have little culture of any sort worthwhile at all.  Most culture is the result of cultural borrowings and fusions, not all of them well understood, at least some amount of cultural appropriation, if you will.  Most of the time such cultural appropriation should be praised, not condemned  (and movements on campuses to restrict such supposed appropriations and efforts to fire anybody associated with them should be condemned).

So besides a lot of really stupid stuff on campuses about this, what has me moved to post this is the case of Elvis Presley, with posts recently floating around the internet and Facebook denouncing the late rock and roll singer for his reported cultural appropriation of supposedly authentically African-American rhythm and blues in his songs that helped create what is now known as rock and roll.  I think he should be praised for what he did, which arguably was cultural appropriation, but there are a lot of other aspects of  this case that I have  seen few comment on. So, I am going to point them out here.

The first is that if only those with ancestry from a group can use what are the cultural artifacts of that group, well, guess what, Elvis Presley almost certainly had African ancestry, even if as the son of a culturally white family born in the heart of the racist Deep South in Tupelo, Mississippi, he never made any mention of this likely fact overtly to my knowledge.  It is not even clear that he used this term, but it is pretty much accepted that he had Melungeon ancestry through his mother, and he did apparently claim to have Sephardic Jewish as well as Cherokee Indian ancestry through her.  While it is unlikely that there is much Sephardic Jewish input to the racial and ethnic mix that goes into the Melungeon population, and a long list of possible groups have been claimed including Portuguese and Turkish, there is no doubt that this group is a tri-racial group, with the largest components being various sorts of  Europeans with African, and less Native American, but some.

The origin of the group would seem to be intermarriages between indentured whites and blacks in Virginia in the mid-1600s, with these people moving into the mountains of Virginia while intermarrying with other groups, including at least some Native American Indians, with the current epicenter of this population being in Lee County in southwestern Virginia and neighboring Hawkins County, Tennessee.  This group suffered substantial discrimination due to its mixed race background throughout the 19th century and well into the 20th century.  In parts of southwest Virginia, regular white children would be threatened by their parents that if they did not behave, "the Melungeons will get you!" The first recorded use of the term dates to 1813 in a Baptist church document in Lee County, in which a woman is denounced for supposedly protecting a "Milungin" woman, which this woman heatedly denies, it obviously being something she did not want to be accused of.  The unremittingly negative use of this term dated even until after Elvis died in 1977, with the first change coming with a country song in 1979 that presented Melungeons as semi-heroic figures and there now being a movement to praise them.  Among those besides Elvis being possibly of Melungeon ancestry are Abraham Lincoln, Ava Gardner, Tom Hanks, Francis Gary Powers, and Bill Monroe of bluegrass fame.  In any case, Elvis very much fits the stereotype of these supposed "straight-haired mulattoes," with his straight black hair and swarthy skin color.

So, quite aside from the fact that Elvis might well legitimately be able to appropriate culturally African-American culture due to his almost certain African ancestry, there is another deeper matter.  What he appropriated was already a cultural fusion of European and African, and what he added to that to help create rock and roll, a supposedly white country-folk input, was also a European-African fusion. So what he did  was put one European-African fusion together with another European-African fusion to create a fusion of these two fusions, American rock and roll.  Who can denounce that?

On R&B, well, the rhythms are arguably African and much of the blues elements in melodic and tonal structures as well.  However, the instruments and the underlying tonal forms are European.  One runs into a similar pattern with jazz, although there is no question especially in the case of jazz that it was African-Americans who created it, as is the case of the blues part of R&B.  However,  one finds blues elements as well in country-folk music, the supposedly white music.  While the largest input into the country-folk tradition comes from the British Isles, there are other African elements, not just the blues part,but also certain instruments, most notably the banjo, which is an instrument that came almost straight and unchanged from Africa.  Given this latter fact it is a bit odd that it is an instrument now essentially never played by any African-Americans.  It is as authentically African as you can get.

So there it is.  Rock and roll is a fusion of two fusions.  We should thank the late mixed race Elvis Presley for his role in bringing about this fusion of fusions to create the most authentically American music of them all.

And a happy Juneteenth to one and all.

Barkley Rosser


Unknown said...

When Vernon went to jail Elvis lived in a low income area in the midst of black people. He came by black music that way.
BTW, I give all gentiles permission to perform the music of the Gershwins, Mahler, and Robert Zimmerman.

Anonymous said...

Let me second the idea that Elvis did not appropriate anyone's culture. He may have been a significant figure in early Rock and Roll, but he did not, despite the legend, appropriate Black music to do so. That may fit the reality of the urban North, but not small town Tupelo. I grew up there, but after Elvis. Still, many of my school teachers had their Elvis stories.

When I returned from living in Japan, nearly all of my White college friends liked Soul Music, but, given the politically correct attitudes of the day, could not tell me what it was. But one day, listening to James Brown, one of them said that he really loved soul music. Then I understood. When I was growing up in Tupelo, we just called that music. Despite segregation, it was all around. Just turn on the radio. Yes, there were certain identified popular musical genres: gospel, country-western, jazz, boogie-woogie, and rock'n'roll, but there was a lot of just music. Gospel and jazz already had no racial connotation, despite their origins. Country-western was White. I suppose that boogie-woogie was Black, but nobody ever told me that. I identified it with some mean piano playing. Jerry Lee Lewis played boogie-woogie, as far as I was concerned. Elvis grew up in a sea of musical fusion, which was part of his, and everybody else's culture. He was an original. To become the King of Rock'n'Roll he did not have to appropriate anything.