Between Two Worlds: Race and Authenticity in Cover Songs

By Justin Hogg |

The reason I make playlists is to find the connections between songs, the sounds that make them up, and to share those findings with people. Usually, my findings coalesce to form a cohesive product, though this is not always the intention or the outcome. These connections aren’t just on the level of sound though. Points that extend beyond time, between cultures, and sometimes even worlds can become defined in compiling a playlist.

In two of the more popular cultural references on playlist making — Rob Sheffield’s Love is a Mixtape and Nick Hornby’s novel turned film starring John Cusack, High Fidelity — someone at some point (the two sort of blur together for me) implies that you can’t mix black music with white music. In other words, it would be taboo in the world of playlist making to have an Eric Dolphy track succeed a Ramones song. The reasoning for this is because black and white music allegedly belong to two different sound worlds, and playlists are supposed to synthesize, or better yet, to compact specifically tailored worlds into 40-55 minute products.

I remember even as a teenager who had made many people poor playlists already that I rejected this. To my teenage mind, something felt a bit too, oh what’s the word? Authentic.

This idea of keeping sound worlds separate belongs to Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity. As the protagonist writes on his rules of mixtape making, “. . . you can’t have white music and black music together, unless the white music sounds like black music.” So the white music has to “sound like black music,” which fits perfectly into a reality as old as whites enslaving Africans itself — that of whites taking African/black culture only for the purposes of imitation and entertainment in their own white circles. In Hornby’s mixtape world white music always precedes black music. This is emphasized in this passage. It couldn’t be black music that sounds like white music, because for one, what does white music sound like, and secondly, the organization of white succeeding black sets forth and entertains a racist imaginary- blacks only imitated whites in response to minstrelsy and blackface, only in response to their enslavement, subjugation and loss of human dignity. The white man wasn’t a concept until African slaves arrived on his boat with shackles, though he asserts that he was a concept before this interaction. Whiteness must always appear first for its own survival. Black music must be locked into the sole position of succession, of only being after and in relation to white music though it purports to be otherwise. Thus, the imitative formula to playlist making established by Hornby’s protagonist demonstrates the necessity of whiteness not only to appear first (in the linguistic orientation of the quoted passage) but ultimately, its need of black culture to legitimate itself.

The implications of a white supremacist authenticity in playlist making are at stake here. As I’ve already stated, I reject authenticity in the realm of music as evidenced through the form of cover songs. The act of covering a song taps into latent cultural materials that extend beyond just the musical object and into the communities of people who form and are formed by that music. A rejection of authenticity in music however, is not an endorsement of appropriation. Cover songs can of course be appropriative, but where stark appropriation takes to fill a lack, generative cover songs take and learn to accumulate, expand, and assemble new sounds. These newly assembled sounds have the potential to map out a shared sound world that doesn’t adhere to the neoliberal conception of diversity, namely, a representation of different cultures through a number of checked boxes that serve only the appearances of white supremacy.

How then does whiteness seek to take hold of black forms of musical expression and interact with them? Are the only possible outcomes of this interaction civilizing and thus destroying, mocking and imitation? Minstrelsy and blackface; the white engagement with black music that masquerades as homage but reveals itself to be violent nonetheless in its respectability arisen and formed out of guilt? Or could a new language and sound be achievable? One which moves both with freedom and purpose. One which actively resists. One which breaks free of two worlds, shouting and screaming and howling all the while.


1. Stuff Like That There – Sun Ra

“. . . these space men contacted me. They wanted me to go to outer space with them. They were looking for somebody who had that type of mind. . . . And it’s like, well, it looked like a giant spotlight shining down on me, and I call it transmolecularization, my whole body was changed into something else. I could see through myself. And I went up. Now, I call that an energy transformation because I wasn’t in human form. I thought I was there, but I could see through myself. Then I landed on a planet that I identified as Saturn.”

        –Sun Ra in John F. Szwed’s Space is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra

And as the legend goes, this is how Sun Ra — whose human moniker is Herman Poole Blount, who arrived in Alabama on May 22, 1914–really came to us. To use the word “born” would be naive. Sun Ra was not born, and he did not die. He “came into this world,” to borrow from his fellow Saturnian Walter Benjamin. This truth resists the notion of a beginning and an end. Unlike a rocket taking off, his being is more akin to a shuttle floating from point to point. He did not ‘die’ (the only word our limited vocabulary knows) he really just took off for other worlds. In between his coming and his going, he left us with a corpus of work that parallels his being; a work which seems to be ever accumulating.

Sun Ra’s discography includes an unissued track that appears on the 2009 release The Second Stop Is Jupiter. It is a cover of the 1944 Betty Hutton track “Stuff Like That There,” popularized again by Bette Midler nearly 50 years later in the film For The Boys. Nestled in between that half a century timeline is Sun Ra’s cover.

“Stuff Like That There” is a song that is of course preoccupied with the intractability of hetereosexual love, the couple form, and how it will eventually overpower the weak and unsatisfactory single woman. One way we can approach how the song sounds and what implications are at stake is through Bertolt Brecht’s theory of ‘gestic language.’

In his words:

‘Gest’ is not supposed to mean gesticulation: it is not a matter of explanatory or emphatic movements of the hands, but of overall attitudes. A language is gestic when it is grounded in a gest and conveys particular attitudes adopted by the speaker towards other men [1]

Gest underlies the social relations and interactions between individuals then. Brecht utilized them in the theatre in part to erode the distinction between acting/performance and the every day interactions between people, and also to train his actors and audiences against the submission to a naturalized social order. A gest then depends on multiple parties. If it is not received by an audience, then the gestic cannot be impactful. For instance, we cannot say a sigh in and of itself is gestic. What makes a sigh gestic are the social cues and information it points to, in relation to who hears it: frustration, exhaustion. It is contextual, historical, and accumulative.

If we are to apply Brecht’s theory of the gest to the musical arena, then what we must first define are the specific social relations performed and conveyed throughout song. In the Bette Midler version, which she sang for the 1991 film For The Boys, it is very clear who the speaker is addressing. To quote her costume director, “a bunch of a horny guys,” of the military variety, for whom the content of the song is filtered down for. The song is accelerated to get to the hugging and the squeezing and the loving and the teasing portion, as Midler shakes her legs for the raucous men in uniform. (Though in the CD soundtrack version, Midler imitates Hutton’s original completely). In Hutton’s original version, the addressee is a bit more mysterious. The song begins with the speaker relating how alone she was “in a world by herself” until her “prince charming” comes along, makes her life “like a song,” and teaches her the lyrics to the song she is singing. The only further mention we get of this prince charming occurs in the line, “And baby, you, you’ve done it!” so that as the listening audience, we must identify the social relation between man and woman (love interests) as the guiding lyrical basis of the song.

Sun Ra’s version bypasses this initial verse relating the loneliness of woman saved by the teaching man. It begins immediately in the nitty gritty- what the speaker wants. If Hutton’s subject then is man, that universally renowned subject in pop music, the absence of this first verse in Sun Ra’s version points to a different subject.  The lack of this verse indicates to us, the audience, that Sun Ra’s subject, his love object throughout the song, can’t be reduced to man or woman. Ra singing “Baby, you’ve done it” takes on a different meaning from Hutton’s. “Baby” could be addressed to anyone or any thing, and in this ambiguity of address a radical set of possibilities opens up that don’t rely on heteronormative performativity structures which have dominated the lyrics of pop music from time immemorial. Further, Ra’s interpretation bypasses the reproduction of social relations between man and woman. These possibilities are given life through, to return to Brecht, the attitudes adopted by each speaker in the song. The attitudes adopted by listeners of pop music are that if a woman is singing about being in love, she must be singing about a man- and vice versa. Sun Ra’s lack of address denies these conventional attitudes.

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Sun Ra and his Arkestra

And this is true not simply of the vocals, but of the sounds that the accompanying instruments produce as well. In Betty Hutton’s original, the opening verse’s loneliness is conveyed to the audience first through the high-low movement of the string section, and the sparsity of a piano. In nearly every classic movie, and even still today, thematic emotions like loneliness, nervousness, and horror are designated through strings and pianos. These social cues laid out for the audience have long since been naturalized in this way, where not just their appearance, but the manner in which they are played, as evidenced through the first verse in Hutton’s original, point to how the listener/viewer should feel. Hutton’s voice in this initial verse directs the listener towards the realm of loneliness through the way she sings through the low to medium register, keeping the same somber tone, in addition to how she drags out syllables. When one is lonely it feels as though they will be lonely forever.

The second and main part of the song, in which the speaker begins to emphatically list out what it is they want, marks a definite shift in tone. Throughout, Hutton runs between multiple octaves in the same line. She moves through high to low not with tension and care as before, but with reckless abandon. Trumpets explode in the background, the piano plays a bit of the boogie woogie, all indicating to listeners that the loneliness of the first verse has been left behind in favor of a far freer attitude post-interaction with a man. This new tone points to the social realm of desire, which is filled with the bombast of life and sound, unpredictability. The speaker wants the addressee to know her desires and her wants. She performs every syllable with crystal clear legibility; she utters every sound with force, with no word running into the next. This legibility, we can reason, finds its purpose in its address. For Hutton is not only addressing this man who has made life bearable for her, but also, in the recorded form of music, an audience which will consume it.

The relationship between legibility and address becomes clearer looking at certain words and phrases uttered by Hutton and Ra in “Stuff Like That There.” Words like “a mess of cabbage,” “lovey-doveish,” “mickey the ickeys” and others evoke the kind of white ‘40s/’50s lingo that luckily faded over time but more importantly weren’t uttered by working class black folks up until the time when black artists were actually recorded on major labels, and began being marketed to white audiences.* So when Sun Ra utters those same words, the listener is thrown off not only because the lingo of that time has gone extinct, but because he is a black man performing a white song intended for white audiences in a black manner. Central to that claim is Ra’s free manner of playing the piano and singing, a freeness which evokes such black pianists that came before him like Art Tatum and Bud Powell and blues singers of the Mississippi Delta. A freedom in diametric opposition not only to Hutton’s original track, but to a whole system of early American musical production and notation approaches which fetishize legibility. This legibility is calculated: pop music for white people sells a lot. Sun Ra’s adaptation, recorded in what sounds like his bedroom, lacks an address both within the lyrics of the song and on the level of monetary ambition (the track was unreleased and never meant for public consumption).

His piano sounds both relaxed and frenetic, notes overlapping one another in a style that is unclean and imperfect, a style which moves between time signatures. In accordance with this, his singing is amateurish, as though it could be for karaoke. Words run into each other, he mumbles. At one point he says, “I want some stu… and some lo…” the laundry list of wants that dominates the song becomes vocal garble and thus incomprehensible. The differences in legibility between Hutton and Ra’s vocal delivery is raced and classed. The kind of mumbling that Ra does on his adaptation would never be conceived by the white producers of Capitol Records in the ‘40s because it wouldn’t have sold to white audiences. It wouldn’t have sold because mumbling and the illegibility of Ra’s delivery at times places him on the side of noise which has always been associated with danger. As that which could make white people uncomfortable and threaten their sound worlds and ultimately their being due to its inherent differences from a mathematically crafted major label pop song by a white singer.

sun-ra-montage-from-10-28-84

The attitudinal nature of the gest maps out social and cultural roles, markers or divisions. It is the gestic in part which differentiates Sun Ra’s delivery from Betty Hutton’s when each sings, “I want some huggin’ and some squeezin’ and some lovin’ and some teasin’ and some stuff like that there.” It is the gestic which indicates to listeners how a person hits the piano, for what purpose, and how we are supposed to feel. It is the gest which locates a specific ‘race’ of sound in this instance. The gest presents itself through timbre, pitch, speed of delivery, all of which contribute to the overall attitude of the cover. This is a black attitude, not meticulously produced and ready-made for white radio audiences. When Sun Ra arrived on Earth, he couldn’t have known about the social relations of blacks and whites in America. However, he landed in Birmingham, Alabama of all places. He would learn about these relations throughout the course of his life, and employ various methods and techniques to combat and cope with the fact of blackness. One of those methods was the taking up and dedication to black forms of expression, for which, during his time on Earth, he always pushed towards and beyond.

 

2. Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud) – Black Randy and The Metrosquad

 

Black Randy and the Metrosquad were one of the legendary LA Dangerhouse records’ primary breadwinners. The label, which only existed from the seminal punk years of ‘77-’79 put out such punk staples as ‘Survive’ by the Bags, ‘We Got the Neutron Bomb’ by The Weirdos, songs by X, The Dils, The Avengers, and more. But it was Black Randy and the Metrosquad, made up of Dangerhouse founders Pat Garrett, David Brown, the enigmatic Black Randy himself and various rotating members of the aforementioned bands, which was championed most by the label.

As Dewar Macleod writes in his book Kids of The Black Hole, “There was a certain “white negro” identification with blacks as the oppressed, a ‘love and theft’ of African American culture” [2]. The “white negro” is a term coined by Norman Mailer in his essay of the same name examining the American hipster’s nonconformist foray into the ontological facts of blackness through adopting exterior qualities (the only thing available to whites- vernacular, clothes). Black Randy attempts something similar. But rest assured, his act was more theft than love, regardless of its intentions. One could find examples of a so called love of black culture in the mods of the ‘60s in England, white working class kids who would play their rock ‘n’ roll, dress up in their suits, have their haircuts, but could fill factories with bodies dancing to Northern Soul- black music from America. This love appeared later in the skins and two tone music, white youth with their suspenders, shaved heads and doc martens, listening to Prince Buster and the Heptones. It could even be found punk in the UK, the posterboys of punk like The Clash or Stiff Little Fingers and their respective covers of Junior Murvin’s “Police and Thieves” and Bob Marley’s “Johnny Was.”

Back across the pond, the approach to showing love for black culture was less frequent in white youth culture. White punks in America had no problem using the word “nigger.” Patti Smith’s “Rock ‘n’ Roll Nigger” used the word to talk about freedom. As she relates in an interview from 1976, “Freedom means I’m not hung up with anybody’s idea of how I should be. I’m outside society, and society is outside of me… I’m a nigger of the universe” [3] Patti Smith’s freedom isn’t a liberating action. It attempts to exist “outside of society” but since that is impossible, since the primary function of language is, to paraphrase the Austrian poet Ingeborg Bachmann, to encompass all things and be encompassed by all, we can’t be free using our same old language [4]. Patti’s faux freedom boils down to white choice, which arises out of white guilt. Patti Smith has the choice to reject people’s ideas of how she “should be,” but for black people, for whom the word ‘nigger’ was created and is reserved for, their ontological manipulation isn’t so easy. To be a “nigger of the universe” doesn’t make one free. She sets the trap for herself in her choice of language.

This phrase “nigger of the universe” becomes very important nonetheless, for bands like X who, in their famous song ‘Los Angeles’ tell the tale of a young girl who has to get out of the city of angels in part because, “She started to hate every nigger and jew.” And don’t forget about the Mexicans and the homosexuals. Now of course I’m well aware of creative liberties, of the boneheaded things early punks would do for shock value that were racist-but-not-actually like Siouxsie Sioux and Syd Vicious rocking the Swastika. I’m well aware of intention. To infer that you are a “nigger of the universe” however, does the work of taking the oppression of black people out of the equation. It denigrates black people even further. If a white person can call themselves nigger, then “nigger” becomes dehistoricized, universalized by the very people who are the universal, and suddenly we must take into account the strife of white people at every mention of the word.

Black Randy took the logic further, or backwards. In his song, ‘Idi Amin’ he shouts “I wanna be black and look like Idi Amin.” If Patti Smith’s “nigger of the universe” decenters black oppression and black people, Black Randy, in name and by assuming the identity of a black man while performing (he also called himself Mexican Randy sometimes), purports to center black people on the basis of identity but actually just reflects back on vacuumous tendencies and functions of whiteness as it concerns cultural production.

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Black Randy

In thinking about Black Randy, one is tasked with answering a number of difficult questions: Does Black Randy’s shtick amount to nothing more than black face without the paint? Or was Black Randy’s act just a less muted James Chance (the stealing of black sound-Albert Ayler-to be played to privileged art kids and white people at CBGB)? Black Randy’s intentions matter not. Nor does his so called love of black music, or the ways in which he is viewed by some as a hero against PC culture, the embracer of the downtrodden. All of that is bullshit as it pertains to the song. It doesn’t matter because it is all on the level of intention. What matters is the performance, the act. What is actually worth talking about when it comes to his cover of the famous James Brown track, more specifically, is his centering of white individuality and the refusal of white punk heroism, which becomes accessible regardless of his racial authenticity. Black Randy’s act may have appeared as though it’s all about being black, but in reality it was all about navigating whiteness.

Our first clue which reveals that his entire act is really about whiteness is given to us in the first few seconds of the song. In the original song with James Brown, the famous lines, “Say it loud, I’m black and I’m proud,” are handled in a call and response manner. James Brown says the command (call), and a group of black youth from Watts and other predominantly black areas in LA shout back the response. In his adaptation, Black Randy is both the call and the response. This individualist choice dismantles any necessary relationship between addressee and addresser. Black Randy’s singularity erases the urgency present within the song, deployed by black youth, to respond to James Brown with “I’m black and I’m proud,” in a time (which is always) when black people are made to feel worthless. In effect, then, the song becomes deracialized in this moment.

But Black Randy makes it even easier for us to reject his faux black act.  We know we are dealing with whiteness by Black Randy’s takedown of white punk heroes after the first chorus:

“I don’t need a white riot in Hollywood. I want a wing lady on my hood. Johnny Rotten, you’re long since forgotten, Dee Dee Ramone, you’re left alone. Patti Smith, you’re a worn out [?], and Joe Strummer you’re bird killing bomber (bummer?).. James Chance: take down your motherfucking pants. You stealing my act, aint no god damn romance. I’ll send your screaming, shouting, Soho Saxophone rooty toot bullshit on back to France!”

While some words prove incomprehensible to at least my ear, the main gist is wildly apparent. This is a railing against the white heroism of punk, a ‘fuck you’ to the titans of the movement: The Sex Pistols, The Ramones, Patti Smith, The Clash, and no wave pioneer James Chance. The collectivism of James Brown’s version once again gets compounded to the “I” of Black Randy (just as in Patti Smith’s idea of freedom), as everything in this verse has to do with him. “I don’t need/I want/You stealing my act/I’ll send.” This individualism, as seen in Black Randy’s performance of both the call and response, reflects back on whiteness. It does so through a number of glaring lyrical decisions that move beyond just pronouns.

photo_blackrandy3

The first is Randy’s line, “I don’t need a white riot in Hollywood,” which calls into question The Clash’s first single “White Riot,” in which Joe Strummer relates how whites needed “a riot of their own,” in addition to the riots which were happening over the “sus” law in the UK at the time, specifically at the Notting Hill carnival in 1976. “White Riot” appeared in the aftermath of the Notting Hill riots in 1958 and ‘76, when Strummer and Clash bassist Paul Simonon participated for a bit before coming to the conclusion that it wasn’t their fight.

Though the “sus” law affected mainly black people, the presence of white fascist gangs at Notting Hill in ‘76 required bodies, and those bodies should have been whites in solidarity, instead of the naive vision of Strummer which, in effect, turns its back on black people at the moment when their lives are threatened by state and fascist violence. Having a riot of “one’s own” based on racial lines alone is a bit misplaced in this context then. Even if the ultimate payoff is to organize whites and join together with black people eventually, that does not help the harm done to blacks daily.

The idea of a “white riot,” places the problems of whites on one end and black people and their problems on the other. The manichean divisions of black people and whites, namely how black people “don’t mind throwing a brick” (it’s not so much that they didn’t mind as it is that it’s necessary to throw a brick) and how whites go to school where they are taught to “be thick” should make one cringe to this day. What these lines establish are black people locked into the role of mindless aggressor infused with the language of passivity and choice- “mind” from a white speaker. In the line immediately following, whites are structurally conditioned by a pacifying school system to neglect the systemic issues (and here black people are not mentioned) which organize society. There is a mention of class: “All the power’s in the hands/Of people rich enough to buy it” but the motivation becomes muddled in “While we walk the street/Too chicken to even try it.” And of course we know that black people aren’t in that “we,” because what is assumed is that a riot against your fascist oppressors is a choice and not a necessity on the part of Strummer. For whites, those life or death stakes and encounters between the state and the body are optional.

While Strummer’s riot is is coded white, Black Randy makes the decision to situate the white riot in Hollywood. Significantly, he chooses Hollywood, not Los Angeles proper, which brings to mind celebrities, actors, and fame. A response to the need for a white riot, a riot of their own finds its rejection in this verse. Even if we rightfully reject Black Randy’s authenticity, the white heroes of punk still get dragged, and its location in Hollywood, where stars are born, speaks to this refusal of fame.

Black Randy’s consciousness of his own performative racial authenticity is called into question at his mention of James Chance. He claims that Chance is stealing his act. And what is James Chance’s act? Imitating black performance — a claim thrown against him by Village Voice critic Robert Christgau, namely that Chance is nothing more than a ripoff of Albert Ayler. Just as the white negro hipsters thought they were black before, so does Chance, which is why Randy must expel him off to France. Because there’s only room for one white nigger in this country. His mention of James Chance erodes the distinction between his own intention and effect. Where Chance thinks he is doing something avant-garde and radical, something authentic, what his performance boils down to in reality — the voice of his saxophone — is just a cheap white imitation of Ayler, whose saxophone voice is unlike anyone else’s in the history of jazz. On the other hand, Randy, who wears the mask of blackness in name but not much else, by claiming he is black, does nothing but invoke whiteness and reflect back on the damaging self-righteousness of white imitators of black culture, of white people who wish they were black. There is nothing explicitly imitative about his sound or his voice. Both cases, despite intention then, achieve the same effect.


An examination of the “cover” as a theoretical form reveals the inherent pitfalls of authenticity, but also the necessity for oppressed bodies and communities to hold onto the cultural products that are theirs. The predation of whiteness relies on the assumption of universal ownership, or at least, that nothing is untouchable. Black Randy’s cover of “Say it Loud,” one of the anthems of the black liberation movement, is not only useless in itself, but also makes known the tendencies and functions of whiteness.

 

Notes:

*The song got to #4 on the charts in the U.S., and if one were to look at the roster of recording artists on Capitol Records in 1944, the label which put it out, they would see clearly the target audience. White music for white people. The black vocalists who were recorded by Capitol during this time- Geechie Smith, Julia Lee, and Nat King Cole, to name three, also adhered to this overly legible manner of speaking. A manner of speaking in which the Southern accent is barely recognizable, and every syllable must be sung in a clear, white American accent. It’s not just that the music was written by, recorded by and for white people, it is the way in which it was produced and how singers on Capitol were manufactured for white audiences to sing in such a way.

Featured Image: Published by D. Van Wagenen, Savannah, GA

 

Works Cited:

[1] Bertolt Brecht and John Willett. Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic. London: Bloomsbury, 2015. Print. 104.

[2] Dewar Macleod. Kids of the Black Hole: Punk Rock in Postsuburban California. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2010. Print. 132.

[3] AssGrassProduction. “Patti Smith – Interview, Stockholm October 1976.” Online video clip. Youtube. Youtube, 29 January 2012. Web. 15 April 2017.

[4] Ingeborg Bachmann. Malina: A Novel. New York: Holmes & Meier, 1999. Print. 60.

 

 

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