Yup, Driftwood does book reviews, too. Cakewalk Down the Color Line takes a look at the influence of African music on Europeans and their descendants from the Enlightenment straight down to the 21st Century.
Cakewalk Down the Color Line: The Blues Reconsidered in the Age of Obama
iUniverse (2009) [ISBN 978-1-4401-6947-2]; 272 pp
If you were at a party and you sat down next to St. Wishnevsky with a drink in your hand and started to talk about music, it would be a blast. He has given it a lot of thought, and he is articulate on the subject in that sort of loose-limbed, trope-addicted way that good raconteurs are. His basic thesis is that blues is not just a black thing, and that if we would all just admit that, we’d be a lot happier.
His first three chapters set up his premise. He cites the first minstrel show as being performed by Gottlieb Graupner, a German immigrant, in Boston in 1799. Graupner sang “The Gay Negro Boy” in blackface. Throughout the book Wishnevsky amasses historical details like this to demonstrate that African- and European-Americans have been cross-pollinating each other’s vernacular music since well before the West was won.
Wishnevsky has company in the academy. Any number of Africana studies scholars will make the case that European music—before and after American colonization—was infused by African cultural influences, through the Moorish presence in Iberia and otherwise. Anyone who listens to the difference between old-time string band music and the Irish and Scottish dance music from which it was descended will hardly fail to detect the African influence.
The author is on shakier ground when he goes looking for an explanation as to why people on both sides of the color line would argue for the purity of their music’s pedigree. In Chapter 16, a section subtitled “Potatoes and Genocide” attempts to downplay the brutality of the Atlantic slave trade by comparing it to the phenomenon of the Irish potato famine of the 1840s in terms of the relative depopulations of Africa and Ireland. Numerical arguments with questionable conceptual bases are found throughout the book.
Wishnevsky’s purpose is to disprove the idea that the horrifying legacy of slavery and post-Reconstruction segregation so isolated black Americans that they produced the blues and jazz from their own African heritage with minimal input from European sources. He is at pains to point out the skin tone of various composers and performers, some of whom passed as white, to argue that the isolation was not ever particularly complete and that white, black, and mixed-race contributions were building the blues and jazz from the get-go.
—Bill Chaisson (Trumansburg, NY)
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