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:
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:
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?———