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Book review: Cakewalk Down the Color Line by St. Wishnevsky

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
St. Wishnevsky
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)

© 2010 DriftwoodMagazine.com, All rights reserved.

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2 comments on “Book review: Cakewalk Down the Color Line by St. Wishnevsky

  1. First I’ve heard of this book & author and grateful to find this review. Definitely a subject worth discussing and digging deeper into. Spike Lee weighed in on the whole Minstrel issue in a most
    unexpected way years ago, but as we lack any mass media forums for
    uninterrupted discussion, this whole aspect of our culture hasn’t flowered into the mainstream. Thanks Bill Chaisson & Diftwood for this reference point.

  2. I doubt it’s of value or even possible to prove any such purity in any form of music, just as it is impossible to identify any one group of people as being of any “pure” or distinct breed. Music is as basic to humanity as speech and likely as old. It has traveled with him and between groups as long as man has likely been producing it. a look at the history of almost any instrument extant in the world today will bear out that they are all rooted in a common set of ancestors no matter where they originated. Even the scale of sounds used in producing music is limited to 13 tones, fewer letters than the alphabet of all known languages. While some cultures might favor the 5 note version, or the 8 note version, or the combined version the scale is universal. But it is interesting to note that the pentagonal scale seems to have only come into the European music late o, and similarly with the discordant chords. Blues depending on that more eastern and African scale and harmonic structure would seem, as jazz is, to argue for African roots, but certainly there is no denial that it was the melding of cultures for what ever reason is as evident in the product as its roots until it is likely as impossible to define it as belonging particularly to any one “race”. This would seem to apply to any music IMHO. That we all respond on the deepest levels of our being to music of almost any form despite what our ethnic origins are and seem able to transcend racial identity or ethnic origin in sharing it speaks to this very thing. It is also my opinion that it is this very universality of Music that was in large part the impetus behind the escape from racism in the world and no where more evident than in the US. But the music that seems to be at the forefront of the battle seems to be that inspired by African rythms and their blend with the other cultures they encounter.
    I for one believe that music is ill served by any claim of exclusivity to any one group. It is in fact the great unifier of man and trying to segregate it is as pointless an occupation as eugenics.

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