inkwell.vue.256 : Kevin Phinney, "Souled American"
permalink #26 of 149: Kevin Phinney (kevinphinney) Mon 10 Oct 05 10:25
Thanks for the question, Ed. Insofar as I could tell, there wasn't
anything in American society during the peak years of minstrelsy
(1840-90) that wasn't racially divisive. But once that's said, you have
a particularly intriguing point: Yes, minstrelsy was an often cruel
lowbrow attempt to belittle another race, but the one thing it did do
was expose black"ness" to the rest of America. 

This was a time when what happened in the world of blacks was utterly
mysterious to whites. Most white people only saw blacks at their
labors, when blacks were not especially likely to speak, other than to
say "yes" or "no," or explain why the hoeing wasn't done or how the pig
slipped through the fence. Not much cultural exchange happening there.

Minstrelsy wasn't an accurate portrayal, of course -- but it was
exposure. And once that exposure happened, and especially after blacks
began entering minstrelsy in droves at the end of the Civil War, blacks
could take the structure of the mistrel show and begin to invest it
with more authenticity, which did happen.

Blacks corked themselves up in order to escape a life of sharecropping
after the war. And, without too much subtext, the reason they corked
their faces black was that it had become   the tradition in minstrel
shows. Blackface was one way of telegraphing to the audience what kind
of show they were about to see.

Unfortunately, Lisa, I came to discover Levine too late for him to be
useful in the book. Time marches on, and my editor was about to
throttle me for taking four months on each of the chapters. I've read
Toll's "Blacking Up" cover to cover several times -- and went out of my
way to find a copy I could keep, since it's long out of print -- but I
must say that for all the quality writing and reportage, I cannot
recall him taking much of a stand on what he chronicled. It was simple
historical reporting. Now that may be only my memory, but that's what I

The nuts and bolts of how this book was assembled I think is far less
chatworthy than the questions the book hopes to raise: Why are white 
people so fascinated with the notion of becoming temporarily black?
Clearly in our culture, not many white people would trade places with a
black person -- except for the moment. Whites still flock to what they
think of as cutting edge black music, still adopt the talismans of
black dress, slang, and even body language. Why? The book draws some
conclusions, but I'd find it far more educational to hear from other
folks who might post. Why do the Rolling Stones, a band of white
fellows from suburban Britain, find this music so intoxicating?
Likewise Bonnie Raitt, Eminem, and Van Morrison. 

In all of our minds, there's some internal meter that reads in the red
when we feel someone is inauthentic (think Vanilla Ice), but what are
those identifiers, and what triggers them? Conversely, how can someone
like Jimi Hendrix walk into the rock world and simplyh claim it for his
own? Was it because he disguised his blackness in psychedelic
blackface? Instead of burnt cork it was Swinging London Mod drag and a
crazy blown-out afro?  And why have no black rock star of his stature
emerged since? Does Prince count? 

These are just a few of the things that continue to nag at me when I
thumb through the book anymore. Not what's there...which I'm proud of,
but what's beneath the surface that I scratched on for five years
running. Who are we? Why does this race that our white ancestors so
mistreated continue to captivate us? What are we looking for?
inkwell.vue.256 : Kevin Phinney, "Souled American"
permalink #27 of 149: Dennis Wilen (the-voidmstr) Mon 10 Oct 05 11:29
Is music special?

In America, the law is English, the humor is Jewish, the music is
African-American and the food is pizza.
inkwell.vue.256 : Kevin Phinney, "Souled American"
permalink #28 of 149: Low and popular (rik) Mon 10 Oct 05 11:30
Kevin, do you think that Eminem is another Vanilla Ice, or do you think
there might be something more there?   And why, or why not.
inkwell.vue.256 : Kevin Phinney, "Souled American"
permalink #29 of 149: Darrell Jonsson (jonsson) Mon 10 Oct 05 11:50
    <scribbled by jonsson Tue 11 Oct 05 00:31>
inkwell.vue.256 : Kevin Phinney, "Souled American"
permalink #30 of 149: David Wilson (dlwilson) Mon 10 Oct 05 14:19

In your sections on jazz, you never really address the question of why
whites are facinated with being black.

Bebop was a life style that besides the clothing, slang, and other
expressions, was really about being "cool." Cool was a posture that
came about when black musicians wanted to be treated as artists instead
of entertainers.  During WW2 and the postwar, blacks had entered the
work force and held down "good" jobs and they didn't want to go back to
the menial work.  Cool was a mechanism to deflect the conflict between
the view of blacks as equals and the reality of racial discrimination.

Then there is the ugly subject of heroin.  Charlie Parker played like
a god and everyone wanted to play like him.  He was also an
out-of-control junkie.  The fallacy was if you wanted to play like
Bird, you had to live like him.  Drugs continued to play a large role
in the jazz music scene and spilled out into the wider society. The
1950's and 60's were the time of addiction and cleaning up.  
inkwell.vue.256 : Kevin Phinney, "Souled American"
permalink #31 of 149: Kevin Phinney (kevinphinney) Mon 10 Oct 05 14:57
Let's take the last comment first. It's a good catch, David, and
you're right. Aside from a brief couple of episodes involving Mezz
Mezrow, I didn't spend any time in the area you mention. To my mind,
there were already so many examples of whites wanting to be black, and
this was the period when "Crow Jim" came along -- reverse
discrimination among musicians. Some believe that be-bop was created as
one way to exclude whites. This is something we hadn't seen before,
and I decided to focus there instead. What you're saying I agree with
inkwell.vue.256 : Kevin Phinney, "Souled American"
permalink #32 of 149: Kevin Phinney (kevinphinney) Mon 10 Oct 05 15:04
Rik, I don't think Eminem is another Vanilla Ice, and I'm not really
sure Vanilla Ice was, either. Let me explain:

Vanilla ice -- Robert Van Winkle -- didn't really get into trouble
until a prefabricated bio was issued by his record company suggesting
he grew up on the wrong side of the tracks and had a rough-and-tumble
childhood. I think he believes he felt the black impulse. But I also
think he was just a pretty mediocre talent.

Eminem, on the other hand, actually HAD the kind of upbringing that
was invented by a publicist to promote Vanilla Ice. He's acknowleged by
his black peers to be at the top of the rap game -- and he's
self-aware. On "White America," the opening track of "The Eminem Show,"
he says it plainly, "Let's do the math/If Id'a been black, I woulda
sold half."

With "Stan," he made a piece of rap art that really set a new standard
for candor. "Lose Yourself" is just terrifically compelling stuff.
He's the real deal, and most agree on this.
inkwell.vue.256 : Kevin Phinney, "Souled American"
permalink #33 of 149: Kevin Phinney (kevinphinney) Mon 10 Oct 05 15:12
And Darell, I like what you have to say. I agree, and my interviews
and research turned up the same kinds of comments and evidence, which
suggest that English teens identified strongly with blacks because they
shared a sense of powerlessness and privation.

I think Americans learn a lot from Brits, and on several occasions I
suggest that Americans take their cues as to the next phase in music
from the kids across the pond.

Of course the reason this music continues to speak to us across
cultures, decades and genres is exactly the kind of thing reflected in
Dr. King's comment, and it really is one of the underlying themes of
the book. Trite though it may sound, I believe that the differences
between us are not nearly so great as the commonalities among us, and
it's that universality which allows black-derived music to shoot right
past all our mental judgments and strike us directly in the heart.

Toni Morrison's comment is chilling, but unassailable. You're right on
the money.
inkwell.vue.256 : Kevin Phinney, "Souled American"
permalink #34 of 149: Sharon Lynne Fisher (slf) Mon 10 Oct 05 17:58
>wouda sold half

What does that mean?
inkwell.vue.256 : Kevin Phinney, "Souled American"
permalink #35 of 149: Kevin Phinney (kevinphinney) Mon 10 Oct 05 20:43
It means Eminem understands that white artists regularly sell double
what their black counterparts are able to achieve,

Of course this was true nearly 20 years ago, when the biggest rap
album in the world was "License to Ill" by the Beastie Boys.

It's also why "From the Cradle" was (and may still be) the top=selling
blues album of all time, even though Eric Clapton is white.
inkwell.vue.256 : Kevin Phinney, "Souled American"
permalink #36 of 149: Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Mon 10 Oct 05 22:11
Is it becoming less true? Doesn't OutKast outsell the Scissor 
inkwell.vue.256 : Kevin Phinney, "Souled American"
permalink #37 of 149: Alex Tobin (texture) Tue 11 Oct 05 00:15
Unless mid-Seventies Elton John is considered 'rap' these days, I
wouldn't categorize Scissor Sisters as such!
inkwell.vue.256 : Kevin Phinney, "Souled American"
permalink #38 of 149: Darrell Jonsson (jonsson) Tue 11 Oct 05 02:59

You mention your curiosity about Hendrix, and why no one has really
managed to match his success.  Is stardom really the same as it
was back then? In a way it seemed like the last of those 60s stars
rode on the wake of phenomenal success of the Beatles.  Perhaps part
of the reason has to do with in a general change in the nature of

Given that perhaps Prince has done well for himself relatively.
inkwell.vue.256 : Kevin Phinney, "Souled American"
permalink #39 of 149: Kevin Phinney (kevinphinney) Tue 11 Oct 05 07:52
Sure, Jon, Outkast does outsell the Scissor Sisters, just the same way
that Earth, Wind, and Fire outsold the New York Dolls. When you're
talking about a niche group like Scissor Sisters, they're always gonna
lose out financially to a mainstream act like Outkast.

Darrell, I'd like to know more about what you're thinking before I
reply. I think by and large that stardom is the same, but you may be
referring to something of which I'm not aware. I really don't see much
of a connection between the Beatles and Hendrix other than that they
were working concurrently and dabbled in psychedelia. Help me
understand the point you're trying to make.

From my perspective, the rock world has been particularly unwelcoming
to black rockers, Hendrix and Prince being the most notable exceptions.
And let's not forget how MTV execs put it in the days before Michael
Jackson and Prince broke the color line on that network. They're quoted
in the book as saying that MTV is devoted to rock music, "and we play
black artists whenever they release a rock record. It's just that most
black performers don't record rock music." That's a paraphrase, but the
point is essentially the same.

Of course, the funny thing is ... now much of their programming is
either rap or hip-hop, because that to a large extent is where the
national conversation is taking place these days, and it's the focus of
much of the youth culture. Not exclusively -- as the Scissor Sisters,
Green Day, Franz Ferdinand, Coldplay and the Killers know very well.
inkwell.vue.256 : Kevin Phinney, "Souled American"
permalink #40 of 149: Low and popular (rik) Tue 11 Oct 05 08:00
When discussing the success of Hendrix and Prince, it might be useful to
note the white influences in their music that made it possible for them to
cross over.
inkwell.vue.256 : Kevin Phinney, "Souled American"
permalink #41 of 149: Berliner (captward) Tue 11 Oct 05 08:07
Right, but that never helped Funkadelic much. 
inkwell.vue.256 : Kevin Phinney, "Souled American"
permalink #42 of 149: Low and popular (rik) Tue 11 Oct 05 09:05
Still, that would be a useful part of the discussion.
inkwell.vue.256 : Kevin Phinney, "Souled American"
permalink #43 of 149: Darrell Jonsson (jonsson) Tue 11 Oct 05 13:28

I find it hard to believe that stardom has not changed
in the last 35 years.  My point in part was that
the Beatles seemed to hit a peak of worldwide stardom
that was a hard act to follow. In a way it seemed Hendrix
rode the tailend of the tranjectory of that level of stardom.

Stars of that era still seem to hold a sort of pantheon in 
the charts and I'm not sure, maybe I'm wrong, but to index
say the success of Lenny Kravitz or Prince against Hendrix
is sort of like comparing the success of Nirvana to the

Lenny, Prince and Hendrix were though cross-over artists, 
most of Barry Gordy's crew though were also cross-over 
artists by design.  Crossing over seems to be the trick,
or maybe it isn't?
inkwell.vue.256 : Kevin Phinney, "Souled American"
permalink #44 of 149: Darrell Jonsson (jonsson) Tue 11 Oct 05 13:29
    <scribbled by jonsson Tue 11 Oct 05 13:29>
inkwell.vue.256 : Kevin Phinney, "Souled American"
permalink #45 of 149: Kevin Phinney (kevinphinney) Tue 11 Oct 05 13:37
Hmmm...What was "white" about Jimi Hendrix? I'd have to say all that
was white was his stage garb (which was actually more otherworldly than
white), and the fact that his music seemed more rock-oriented than R&B
oriented. Interestingly, his music became much more overtly black
toward the end of his life...the R&B version of "Stone Free" on the
Hendrix box was indicative, I think. And tunes like "Freedom" foretold
a much more overt, if not miltant approach.

Buddy Miles told me that he believed the reason Band of Gypsys broke
up was because Hendrix's handlers didn't think a white rock audience
wanted to see three negroes up onstage.

With Prince, you have someone who never really renounced or embraced
blackness. He said it well in "Controversy:" Am I black or white/ am I
straight or gay..." That was his gimmick -- teasing and titillating his
audience to come to their own conclusions about who  he might really

To paraphrase Eminem, Prince was saying "I am whatever you say I am."
Whites and blacks were able to project onto the Prince persona whatever
suited them best. 
inkwell.vue.256 : Kevin Phinney, "Souled American"
permalink #46 of 149: Kevin Phinney (kevinphinney) Tue 11 Oct 05 13:43
Darrell, I do understand what you're saying now, and agree. Like
"LIFE" and "Look" magazines of the 1960s, these were 800 lb. gorillas
in the marketplace, and now you have "Skateboarding" magazine and
"Cigar Afficiando." The approach now is much more niche marketing, and
much less in trying to win over a majority.

So in that sense, yes, the idea of what it means to be a star has
evolved, and you have people who know OF Lenny Kravitz and Outkast, but
couldn't name a song by either, and you have Clint Black fans or Norah
Jones fans who couldn't even hum the chorus to "I Like the Way You
Move." Back in the 1960s, you had the Beatles and Otis Redding on the
same stations as Frank Sinatra and Roger Miller.

I'm not sure where race figures in, though -- and maybe you weren't
suggesting that it does.
inkwell.vue.256 : Kevin Phinney, "Souled American"
permalink #47 of 149: Kevin Phinney (kevinphinney) Tue 11 Oct 05 13:46
To correct myself again: There are R&B/hip-hop fans who don't know a
thing about country, and some don't know much about the state of rock.
Likewise, there are rock 'n' roll fans whose knowlege about 50 Cent and
Usher is limited to what they see or hear on "Entertainment Tonight."
inkwell.vue.256 : Kevin Phinney, "Souled American"
permalink #48 of 149: Low and popular (rik) Tue 11 Oct 05 14:47
"Hmmm...What was "white" about Jimi Hendrix?"

It's as hard for white people to see as it is for fish to see water.   White
people only notice the "other" in black music and musicians, and tend to
ignore the familiar.    I was in college when Aretha released her version of
"Respect", and we sat on the floor around candles, swigging Red Mountain,
and arguing for hours as to whether white people could EVER learn to make
music like that.   Imagine our chagrin when we saw a picture of the studio

I'd love to see a discussion of white influences on black music, but it's
not going to happen because it's difficult for whites to see, and blacks
probably aren't all that interested.
inkwell.vue.256 : Kevin Phinney, "Souled American"
permalink #49 of 149: Kevin Phinney (kevinphinney) Tue 11 Oct 05 17:28
Well, Rik, I beg to differ. I believe that at the core of this topic
is our own search to see why we don't understand one another better
than we do, and if anything can be done in order to improve the quality
and clarity of communication between us all.

Toward that end, I videotaped a panel discussion on race and music
during the Austin City Limits Music Festival a couple of weeks back.
The panelists were Cyril Neville (who's celebrating a birthday here
today -- his first as an Austinite) and his wife and vocalist Ganyielle
(I'm guessing on the spelling here), Stevie Ray Vaughan drummer Chris
Layton and Lyle Lovett.

Granted some people consider it a silly parlor game to ask these
questions, because the answers don't come easy; sometimes they don't
come at all, and sometimes, they simply lead to more questions. But
this kind of introspection I believe is important. We are always
willing to rhapsodize on who we are as black and white people in songs
and films and literature -- but how often do we actually discuss it?

I agree with you (and chuckled at your analogy) that white people have
as hard a time seeing the black experience in America as a fish does
seeing water. As a gay man living in this society -- which is clearly
set up for one set of people to "win the game," I understand how one
person's experience can differ from another's, even though they're
going through what appears to be identical circumstances.

When my friend the comedian Bill Hicks died ten years ago, I wrote his
obituary for the Austin American-Statesman. His brother Steve very
generously called to thank me for what I'd written, but offered a
correction. I'd written that Bill had a miserable childhood, and Steve
wanted me to know that his parents treated both their boys like gold,
and without any kind of favoritism. He'd felt that he'd had the best
upbringing a guy could hope for.

I told him how Bill had told me on numerous occasions that he'd had a
miserable childhood. "It's not how you were treated," I told him, "but
how you felt treated. Bill may have had the same experience you did and
taken it entirely differently."

So it is with blacks in America today. I think (as I wrote in the
Preface) that blacks in America today can be sitting across the room
from whites and have a completely different experience of the event,
inflected by dint of race. I've no idea what your ethnicity is, but
you're touching the bedrock of what fascinated me with this story at
the outset. I'd like to hear more from you on the topic... so please,
post some more.
inkwell.vue.256 : Kevin Phinney, "Souled American"
permalink #50 of 149: Carl LaFong (mcdee) Tue 11 Oct 05 17:32
Well, back in the early 80s, a pal of mine came across an Afrobeat CD
he really liked, great music all sung in a strange pidgin English,
barely decipherable to American ears.  After listening to it a few
times, he realized that one of the tracks was a tribute to Jimmy
Rodgers, the Singing Brakeman.


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