On Race, Repertoire, and Ignorance

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Okay, this might be a long one. The subject is huge, even within the specific focus I am going to try to maintain for this post. Better get a cup of tea before we start.

During my schooldays, I learned the word 'pikey' as a colloquial adjective for miserly, niggardly. Its meaning emerged through contextual usage, with a particular emotional flavour. At some point during my teens I saw the word used as a noun, scrawled in graffiti near a gypsy encampment, and thereby learned to my surprise that it was a racial slur.

I don't have such a clear memory of the moment of revelation when I learned that the word 'cotton-picking', heard in cartoons in my childhood, likewise carried huge cultural baggage. But I can clearly remember the days of innocence when it was just sound, a mannerism used as an intensifier to give a certain rhythm and tone to the speech.

I have been reflecting on these transitions of awareness in the context of debates about certain songs that have been mainstays of barbershop repertoire for many years, whose cultural references are rooted in an image of an idealised American South with a social order stratified by race. Nostalgia for the homeland of Dixie signifies in these songs also a nostalgia for the bygone time in which White dominance was yet to be systematically challenged.

In an era when barbershop organisations internationally are trying to atone for their own segregationist pasts and become more genuinely inclusive, the continued performance of these songs is, to say the least, problematic.

These debates have been going on for some time (and if you've not read Elizabeth Davies's blog post on the question, go and do so the minute you've finished here). The immediate context for my reflections here was a discussion that emerged after a performance in the chorus contest of 'Swannee' at the Sweet Adelines International annual convention last week. This was in the same week that the organisation had celebrated the 50th anniversary of lifting its colour bar by giving posthumous lifetime membership to Lana Clowes, a woman of colour who was excluded in 1962.

Janice Dorris started off the discussion by posting the Al Jolson clip that I have linked to above. It gives as clear and vivid a critique of what the problem is with this kind of repertoire as you could hope to see. Even to someone like me, who is quite familiar, in theory, with the issues involved, seeing them enacted like that has a far greater emotional impact than merely reading about it.

But I could imagine that for some people, seeing Al Jolson in blackface might give the kind of penny-drop moment that my teenage self had seeing 'old pikeys' daubed on a wall. Less so in the US, for sure, where the politics of race is current and urgent and played out in the context of inherited historical discourses. But over here in Europe, I wonder how many people hear the echoes of cotton-fields and slavery in the Mammy songs we have imported along with the barbershop style.

(It's not that we don't have our difficulties with race relations, you understand. But the structure and content of the debates is different, reflecting the different historical circumstances we have inherited. Subject too big; mustn't get distracted into talking about that here.)

Some years ago I heard a LABBS chorus from the south of England sing a parody themed around the idea of 'where the heck is Dixie?' Its central idea was that 'the South' as a richly-associative category of cultural identity doesn't translate well. Every country has a South, but the meanings associated with the region are highly country-specific. My experiences as a coach suggest that most European barbershoppers miss a lot of these connotations in the lyrics they sing. Nostalgia is experienced in a generalised sense, empathising with a shared longing for an idealised, cleaner, simpler past, while the exoticised elements (especially those referring to jazz or blues) are conceived as American, rather than specifically African-American.

So, at a practical level, the first question is: can we criticise people's repertoire choices when they are performing in a cultural context in which they may be genuinely unaware of problematic connotations in the songs they choose?

Having finally managed to articulate the question clearly, it turns out that I have an opinion on this, and it is: yes, we are right to call people out on these choices. First, because a performer's primary responsibility is to their audience, and just because the performer is blithely unaware of historical contexts, doesn't mean that all their audiences will be. If you offend or upset someone unknowingly, your lack of intention only goes so far in mitigating that hurt. 'I didn't know' works better as an apology than as a defence.

Indeed, lack of awareness is the quintessence of cultural privilege.

Second, I find that I am bothered at an artistic level that people can recirculate standard repertoire without actually bothering to find out very much about it. 'Where does this text come from and what does it mean?' should be a standard part of the process when learning a song. Just taking the sheet music at face value because you've heard the song dozens of times before feels like, I don't know, playing Bach Preludes and Fugues on a modern piano without considering how that instrument differs from the ones Bach might have been writing for. Shallow, and liable to lead to misjudgements.

The second question is: once you have raised your awareness about a song's connotations, what do you do about it? Do you stop singing the song entirely, do you bowdlerise it into a less problematic form, do you continue to sing it, but find ways to frame that performance that engage critically with the past?

Bowdlerising is, I suspect, the least helpful solution. You can replace the word 'Mammy' in 'Swannee', but that won't erase the memory of Jolson, and the whole performance tradition he represents in this clip, from the mind of someone who has seen it.

Choosing other songs will often be a wise decision, and was the preferred one amongst participants in the discussion that precipitated this post. But then again, censorship, whether externally-mandated or self-imposed, is also something to be wary of. The comparison that comes to mind is with historical literature or with opera, where the major works of the past often embody social values we would not now endorse. But we respond by critiquing their content, rather than removing them from our heritage. Carmen is still performed, and the tensions of sexual and colonial politics in it remain as fraught as ever, but these days Don José is portrayed rather less heroically as he finds their resolution in an act of murder.

I think part of the problem here is that barbershop - for all the nostalgia in its favoured emotional registers - is typically framed as an act of communication in the present, a message from the heart to the heart, in the now. It doesn't leave space for either critical or historical distance. Maybe if there were more of a culture of researching songs rather than just feeling them, this would be different.

(To all of you rushing in to defend feeling, I am not saying we should stop feeling our songs. But adding research makes feeling more interesting and nuanced. Another big subject not to get distracted by just now.)

So perhaps we are best letting these songs lie for a while and seeing how they look when they are no longer part of a continuous performing tradition. We need to let those songs that carry uncomfortable messages from the past have a chance to become history before we can figure out what kind of relationship to build with them in the future. When we can hear them as documents of by-gone times, inscribed with social relations that feel genuinely foreign, then we will be in a better position to work out if, and how, to sing them.

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