Soapbox: On 'The Golliwog’s Cakewalk'

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soapboxEver since I started writing about race and repertoire a couple of years ago, I have been quietly fretting about a particular piece of piano music that I, like many piano students, learned in my teens for one of my grade exams. It is still appearing on exam syllabuses today. Earlier this spring, these private misgivings became public when I found myself involved in an online conversation about its problematics with a group of pianists and piano teachers, many of whom also teach and perform it.

The piece in question is ‘The Golliwog’s Cakewalk’ from Debussy’s Children’s Corner suite. The conversation has stayed with me since, forcing me to clarify my own feelings about the piece. I’m reflecting on those feelings here to try and bring some coherence to them in the aftermath of the difficult experience of finding myself at odds with people I’d usually identify with quite strongly. I keep telling myself it’s the uncomfortable experiences that lead to growth.

The conversation started with a pianist’s misgivings about the title: is the term ‘golliwog’ one we should be happy printing in a programme these days, and if not, what should one do instead? A simple practical solution offered by one participant was just to call it ‘Cakewalk’ – so, lose the difficult term, and carry on as usual.

Indeed, another participant told of a piano teacher who so tired of pupils’ parents complaining about Debussy’s earlier piece ‘Le Petit Negre’, that they just put a sticker over the title and renamed it ‘Study in C’.

One can understand the attraction of these solutions. They let you bypass the difficulties of cultural politics and get the focus back on the music itself.

Except, of course, that the notion of ‘the music itself’ as somehow separate from and unconcerned with cultural politics is a fiction that classical musicians use to avoid thinking too hard about their privilege. I was taken to task by one participant in this debate for suggesting that the veneration of genius allowed classical music to become morally uncritical, but it was a point made in direct response to the assertion that ‘it would be a crime not to play such great music’. There is a deeply-held belief amongst musicians that artistic merit is its own excuse.

So, let’s think about the musical content here a more closely. I’m talking specifically about this one piece, not all the various other works of western art that portray racial Others that were thrown at me in a flurry of whataboutery. This is a debate that works on a case by case basis.

Let’s pretend that we don’t know the title of ‘The Golliwog’s Cakewalk’. What clues are there as to its musical world? First, there are a cluster of characteristic fingerprints of ragtime: the syncopated melody, the stride bass, the passing modulation to the dominant at the end of the consequent half of an antecedent-consequent phrase structure.

Second, there’s the juxtaposition of these elements with the big theme from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, which contrasts in melodic shape, harmonic language and texture. Even if you didn’t get the reference (which I didn’t age 15 until my older brother pointed it out to me), you understand that this is contrasting material, which both interrupts and gets commented on by the ragtime ideas. There’s narrative here, or at least dialogue; the plot advances through incongruity.

Third, there is the semiotics of comedy. Acciaccaturas, sudden shifts in register and dynamic, and particularly the way the melody lands heavily on the flattened 6th degree all tell us that this is music in inverted commas, full of nudges and winks.

To my mind, the problem isn’t the word golliwog in the title. The problem is the golliwog in the music. This is a cartoon Black, evoked through direct genre reference, and then parodied. If you fail to notice either the stylistic idiom or the caricature, you fail to understand the music. Change the title, and it’s still blackface minstrelsy on the keyboard.

Ah, people say at this point, but Debussy pokes fun at Wagner too. Yes, he mocks the pretentious high art composer by putting him in the company of an exaggerated racial stereotype. This doesn’t make the stereotype less rude; if anything it intensifies the parody by invoking a sublime-to-ridiculous comparison.

The question then arises: is it just not possible to perform or record the suite? (Note the integrity of the classical musician who doesn’t consider it viable to play a work incomplete – though that is potentially an option.) For myself – probably not in a concert situation. In the classroom, for sure – in a place where people can live with and process the discomfort that develops as you start to unpick the musical connotations. Lots of learning to be done there.

For one of the primary objections to calling out the racism on this piece was that ‘we can’t erase history’. But as the debates around Charlottesville last summer brought to our attention, there’s a difference between history and art, between writing about General Lee in a history book or a museum and putting up a statue to him. The concert hall isn’t about history, it’s about the current performing tradition we’re maintaining here and now. People accuse me of applying today’s morality to yesterday’s music, but to my mind today’s morality is the appropriate one to use for today’s audiences.

The problem with racist stereotypes in artistic and cultural products isn’t merely the wrongs of a hundred years ago. It’s the way that people today are still living with the legacy of those wrongs, their lives shaped by oppressive belief systems that have not yet died out – and indeed are if anything resurgent in recent years. A Black boy was terrorised in a British school earlier this year when his classmates decided to ‘play’ at recreating a lynching. Sure, it’s a long way from a jaunty flat 6th to mass violence, but those white boys could only have turned into a mob having imbibed a view of Black people as lesser, as not fully human. Do musicians really want to be complicit in this?

There is genuine pain felt at the thought of losing pieces from the performing repertoire in which people have invested time and love and care as musicians over many years. But, when you start to understand the pain felt by those who have been on the receiving end of these stereotypes in the past and in the present…well, maybe it’s the pianist’s turn to take one for the team.

And, you know, if we’d really like to engage with African American musics of the early 20th century, we don’t have to play the parodies produced by European composers playing with a new exotic Other, we can play music by actual African Americans: Florence Price, Scott Joplin, Margaret Bonds, Nora Holt, Shirley Graham Du Bois, Undine Moore Smith.

There is so much wonderful music that doesn’t get played because we keep recirculating the standard repertoire. We’re not going to run out of beauty or enrichment if we decide to put some pieces aside for now. And there’s plenty of music we don’t play any more because we find it rather too much of its own time, to the point of becoming embarrassing. Personally, I’m embarrassed that it’s taken me this long to get to that point with this piece.

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