White Boy Blues

I have issues with authenticity. 1 One of the best scenes in Terry Zwigoff’s brilliant Ghost World is the horrific date Seymour has at the local “blues bar” where the frat/club/blues band the Blueshammer gives a soul-crunching perfomance of “Pickin’ Cotton Blues”: I been pickin’ cotton all DAY LONG. “Aren’t they great?,” asks Seymour’s chirpy date.

I was reminded of this scene recently in a discussion or two about Long Summer Day – a track on the new album by the San Francisco duo Two Gallants. I am a huge fan of their first record and think of them quite highly. However, I admit that the first time I heard this new track, I was taken aback by the track – and their moxie. This wasn’t just a blues song but a plantation song. This wasn’t a cover – they merely used the title and a chorus line – but an original work. Can two skinny white kids from San Fran really write, “Well I went down to the polling place but the white man there just laughed in my face/said “Boy this ain’t no nigger’s race, you best get on your way/“Sir I believe I’ve got the right.”/He said “You ain’t got nothing if you ain’t white./And I thought I said get out of sight.” Well what was I to say?” and get away with it? I wondered. Judging from the conversation with my friends and reading the reaction on music sites … I guess not. The track’s reception is largely harsh and contentious:

Pitchfork: Two Gallants are borrowing otherness, which raises the stakes significantly. The nagging discomfort we’re so good at ignoring when we listen to music that handles history like costume jewelry is thrown into stark relief by “Long Summer Day”, a reworking of Moses “Clear Water” Platt’s scathing work song…

Prefix: Gee fellas, how quaint. Modern-day blackface minstrelsy this is not, but a little more tact would be nice. Call me crazy, but busking on the streets of San Francisco and touring through Europe (that’s the “world weariness” Saddle Creek emphasizes) doesn’t give them quite the stature to liberally drop the N-bomb and sing a song from the perspective of a man as hardscrabble as Platt.

On their website, the Two Gallants give their rejoinder: we returned to find out doorstep littered with scorn. the headlines read that we haven’t the right to write about our country’s embarrassing past. instead we must stick to the trials of two pale skinned urbanites who have never known a day of struggle in their lives. if anyone needs us we’ll be combing the aisles of the local library, seeking out the song writing rule book for white kids. it must be in there somewhere today.

“Borrowing Otherness” – damn, thats just mean. The Two Gallants’ reference to their own “pale skins” also seemed compellingly awry to me. Yes, the critiques do hinge on the fact that Adam Stephens and Tyson Vogel are white kids from San Francisco because we are not really taking about white-from-black appropriations [that disqualifies all of rock, after all]. Eminem has, after all, built a world-wide following while “appropriating” and “borrowing otherness” along with plenty of N-bombs. And Jack White [heh] seems to have covered folk and blues standards through 4 discs with nary a peep from the Pitchfork defenders. My guess is that it isn’t their race or youth that has the critic’s ire – it is their class. And by “class” we can also mean “lefty, granola-crunching, san-fran hippies”. But, ah, you say – we can’t really talk about class in this country unless it is a stereotypical rags-to-riches story2. Which is why we are picking on these pale-faces who can’t ever know about “a man as hardscrabble as Platt”. Surely not.

Funny thing is that when John Lomax first meets Moses ‘Clear Rock’ Platt at the Central Farm Texas Penitentiary in Sugarland, Texas, Clear Rock is engaged is some horrendous acts of cultural appropriation singing the songs of white folks from way back long:

…and here was Clear Rock, a seventy-one year old water boy, a satisfied prisoner for life. Unable to read or write, he sang “Bobby” Allen, as he called the old English ballad, true to tune, but hopelessly mixed with a famous cowboy song entitled “The Streets of Laredo.”3

There is a lot more that should be said about Clear Rock and maybe I will. You can, of course, go and read John Lomax’s wonderful narration of his trips in the early 1930s to collect these songs. As for the Two Gallants, I will see them in May when they visit Chicago and boo their hippie asses. In the meantime, what do you think, gentle readers? Should we rake Ra Da Punjabi Rapper over coals too?

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  1. and reality, but let’s leave that aside. []
  2. 50 ¢’s Get Rich or Die Trying is fast emerging as a pivotal text that I need to look at. Spike Lee’s Inside Man reinforced my gut on that. []
  3. Lomax, John A. The Adventures of a Ballad Hunter. New York, Hafner Publishing Company, 1971. p. 179. []

Author: sepoy

what is the vertiginous chapati saying to me?

7 thoughts on “White Boy Blues”

  1. should radiohead stop singing idioteque because they’ve never seen the world end? does steely dan lose the right to perform kid charlemagne because they’ve never mass produced lsd and gotten busted? should tool stop playing h. because they’ve never been addicted to heroin (as far as i know)?
    granted these songs might not be as “controversial” as long summer day, my point is the song in question simply tells a story and conveys a message. they don’t claim to have suffered as a southern black man, so why should they be persecuted for it? i’ve never heard donald fagen being accused accused of insisting on having done time for acid distribution in the sixties.
    how many books have you read that tell a fictional story that have offended you simply because there’s no way the author could have suffered such trials? it’s simply an art form, whether you have first hand experience of the subject matter or not, i don’t see the harm done.

    and sam, i think you missed the point, the author of this article didn’t say anything about burying our past, just that two white boys shouldn’t be singing about something to which they can’t relate. and spell check your responses once in a while.

  2. i sarcasticly applaud you,
    hey instead of remebering the hisory of america lets try to cover it up and pretend it never happened.

    this idea plagues many people, as a freeshmen in highschool we are now learning things about our country that have been tried to be “rewritin”.

    this song is not raceist in any way shape or form. i myself also being a musician, music is really the last place you can say anything without being phycologically jugded.

    so i will leave you with my words, listen to the song again, and revaluate your view on U.S. history

    P.S. (that means postscript) good luck trying to boo them at their own show, they wont hear you because their message to america is to loud. and they woudn’t stoop to your level of ignorance.

  3. who are you to boo. to make it in the music industry is a struggle in its self.
    and these guys have more in common with moses pratt than you and most people will give them credit for because thier race.
    nigger is a word that has a history that should never be forgotten . epecailly in the middle class white circles two gallants is singing to
    get off your soap box your attacking the wrong enemy.
    there are racists active in government , there are minute men , and ku klux klan in the police and military

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