These “Bawdy Blues” Liner Notes Contain Multitudes

Bawdy Blues Album Cover
Bawdy Blues Album Cover

These are the liner notes for “Bawdy Blues,” an album of blues music from various artists recorded between 1956 and 1961 and released in 1963. These liner notes were written by John Greenway (1919-1991),1 a folklorist originally from England who spent much of his career cataloguing various folk songs, especially American ones, and other songs too. He also wrote the liner notes for a number of albums, this being just one example. I encourage you to read through the liner notes to form your own impressions before going on (click on them to get a larger view), but I will be quoting them, so if you want, you can dive right in.

You don’t have to get very far into the notes before things get a little icky. Here is the first sentence:

To l’homme moyen sensuel as well as to at least one serious researcher there is a close correlation between the supposedly unregulated sexual behavior of Negroes and their songs, that the early socioeconomic symbolism that allegedly suffused all the spirituals has been paralleled by the sexual symbolism that pervades all Negro secular song.

Greenway’s treatment of race in these liner notes is from a period of American writing right on the cusp of a shift to a point where this sort of thing now tends to make us uncomfortable.2 The outdatedness and offensiveness of the term “Negro” nowadays is of course the easiest marker for this. Here is a chart of the usage of the terms “Negro” and “African American” from 1900 to 2000 in lots of English books.3

Usage of “Negro” was going strong for a while, and in 1963, when this album was released, Martin Luther King Jr. could report in his “I Have a Dream” speech that “this sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality” and that “there will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights” without anything seeming amiss. During the 70s usage of it takes a nosedive and by 1980 it is at about the level it has remained ever since.4  So the thing that at first sounds most notably objectionable to modern ears is something Greenway is in the clear for.

Would that we could say the same for the rest of the sentence. There are a lot of subtle things Greenway is doing to shift himself into a position which he takes to be respectful but which both then and now seem to me to have accomplished the opposite. The first is his use of the untranslated phrase “l’homme moyen sensuel” to open the notes. This is French for “Average Joe” but you wouldn’t know it unless you read French or have Google. Greenway is a fan of this sort of opening: the introductory notes for his own album of talking blues recordings (published 1958) begins “Hwaet! We Gardena in geardagum,” which is if anything more impenetrable unless you’ve got the opening lines of Beowulf memorized.5 Starting off liner notes with phrases that l’homme moyen sensuel is unlikely to understand unless he has had an education in excess of what any reasonable person needs achieves what Greenway probably thought of as a sort of heightening effect. All of a sudden our liner notes are of a refined character usually reserved for academic articles where you can say obscure stuff because everyone is in the know.6

In practice I think this typically just makes you look like an asshole the moment you depart from something that is actually common knowledge among the readers and instead introduce a phrase that is, in effect, just showing off that you happen to know a thing.7 However, what is normally just an annoying but ultimately harmless way of trying to look smart is, in this context, a little darker.

Greenway, I suspect, sees himself in the position of a popularizer, defender, translator, and ambassador of this “Negro” music to society at large (i.e. white people).8 But unless Greenway is just an inveterate asshole with an unconquerable desire to alienate the reader straightaway, I suspect the reason he opens this album with such a conceited use of a term is that he seems himself as imparting cachet to something that desperately needs it. In the reader’s mind, Greenway imagines, blues music, especially bawdy blues music, isn’t something to take seriously. He sees his reader as an educated white person who doesn’t see why anyone would bother with the blues, and Greenway is looking for a way to make a bold declaration along the lines of “no, this music deserves a sophisticated investigation.”

But the entire framework of sophistication he employs to accomplish this already takes for granted these suspect notions of what counts as refined. We shouldn’t need a pick-me-up from a fancy French phrase to get ourselves to a place where we’re ready to take the blues seriously. Rather, we ought to be in a place where there’s nothing about the blues that suggests we need an explanation in the first place for why we should care. To acquiesce to the false belief that the blues require “sophisticated” overtures to gain an entrance into the realm of things worth thinking deeply about is to reify that belief.

Even worse, to take for granted the necessity of combating the belief is to assume the reader holds it. (One mistake is the same as the other, really: taking the belief as a given reifies it, and vice versa.) In effect, Greenway is writing liner notes as if the entire world (aside from him) is mistaken, as if being mistaken like this (or, in other words, as if being prejudiced like this) is a natural place to be. I’m sure it was a common place to be, at least for white people, but whenever someone refers to a common but prejudiced belief that is common not because it’s the natural and obvious one to arrive at but because the mechanisms of power and oppression inculcate the belief, this always strikes me as implicitly endorsing the prejudice, not as correct but as a reasonable thing to think, at least at first.

(An illustration of this: I once heard someone discussing ISIS. They said something like “even other Muslims don’t like ISIS! In fact, average Muslims are some of the biggest opponents of ISIS.” In one sense this is true. Of course other Muslims don’t like ISIS. Nobody likes ISIS, and the vast majority of people who are fighting against ISIS and whom ISIS is killing and subjugating are Arab Muslims.9 But the “even” and “in fact” are what get my goat. This person was American, talking mostly to Americans, and the unstated assumption here is that the speaker or at least the audience as the speaker conceived of it was coming at this from a perspective of thinking that Muslims are generally fine with ISIS, at least more so than non-Muslims. But that’s an insidious way of thinking. The only reason to form that misconception is to have some pretty messed up preconceptions about what Muslims are inclined to think about things like ISIS. Plus, the speaker is assuming one of these two things: either there are no Muslims in this audience of Americans, or at least not enough worth thinking about; or the Muslims in this audience of Americans are going to be just as surprised about the attitudes other Muslims take towards ISIS as the non-Muslims in the audience. That’s the only way the “even” and “in fact” sense to me. That kind of assumption is exactly the one Greenway is making. He might be right that the audience reading these liner notes is going to be coming in with misconceptions about these songs, but what does that tell us about the audience he has in mind, and the people that he is excluding from it?)

This othering doesn’t get any better as the sentence goes on. Greenway refers to the “supposedly unregulated sexual behavior of Negroes.” I’m sure he has good intentions, in the sense that “supposedly” is supposed to show us that this description does not match reality. In context, though, it comes off more like someone who insists of being called an “alleged” criminal because they have yet to be convicted. It’s as if Greenway is fighting a rearguard action against the forces of stereotype and prejudice by meeting them halfway, granting that one might hold the racist view but qualifying it by noting that the view is not obviously true. But why meet this sort of thing halfway? Rather than pointing out that this sort of racism is “supposed,” better to come out all guns blazing and point out that it’s not veridical at all. That is less diplomatic, though, and because these liner notes are an exercise of diplomacy, they are forced to adopt the attitude of an outsider looking in, which is ultimately just another way of taking for granted the pernicious assumptions about the proper starting place of inquiry into the blues.

That diplomacy is Greenway’s goal becomes clear in the second sentence:

Since this hypothesis leads to invidious comparisons of white and Negro song, it seems proper to approach the material of this album not esthetically (as its reviewers will approach it), but from the point of view of comparative ethnology.

We can imagine all sorts of reasons as to why Greenway is of course right to call these comparisons invidious: no doubt much of what was said about the blues was racism parading as aesthetic criticism just like sometimes today we see claims that rap music isn’t music as a shorthand for “I’m a white supremacist.”10 Even Greenway’s alternative, which is to approach to approach the music from the point of view of ethnology, is, outside the context of actual race relations in America, the correct response. When Greenway later in the paragraph compares “pathogenic frustration” among “the Polynesians,” “the whites,” and “Negroes, for that matter,” I think we can take him at face value: “the whites” are not in any sort of privileged position for him when it comes to comparing cultures.

But it can’t just be this simple when the cultures being compared are contemporary cultures in our society rather than long dead cultures from far away. To adopt an ‘outside looking in’ approach that in one sense treats all the cultures equally does not help Greenway at all with the issue of how thoroughly his investigation constitutes an othering endeavor. This becomes clear when he dives in to the ethnography itself:

Take Shakespeare as the unlikeliest example. […] Shakespeare would have approved Memphis Slim’s tour de force on a phonemic four-letter acrostic, though he may have criticized his over-playing of the hand in the last phrase.

The first issue is labeling Shakespeare as an unlikely example. Greenway’s point is that Shakespeare turns out to be as bawdy as anyone, which is true, but just as opening the notes with a fancy quote sends a clear (and false) signal that the topic we are addressing is one that needs fancying up so that we can grasp its appeal, picking an author as esteemed as Shakespeare as the point of comparison and labeling this comparison as an unlikely one cannot be anything other than a signal of how boldly Greenway takes himself to be jumping the gap between what people think of the blues (unsophisticated, wholly incomparable to true art) and what is true of the blues (they aren’t that different from the Bard’s own works). But it’s precisely the belief in this gap as something we need to jump that takes for granted the status quo that we ought to be explicitly rejecting. You can almost hear Greenway patting himself on the back as he describes, for instance, the fanciful foray into what Shakespeare might have said to Memphis Slim. If we are already predisposed to think that there’s nothing odd about comparing Shakespeare and the blues (as we ought to be), the surprised and playful tone that Greenway adopts just highlights the distance between the world he’s writing for and the world we want.

Greenway’s first example provides a nice illustration of all of this:

How many of the high school Thespians who declaim “Pillicock sat on Pillicock hill” have the faintest suspicion of what they are talking about?

This is from King Lear, and as No Fear Shakespeare helpfully points out, it’s a very bawdy reference indeed. Greenway doesn’t bother to explain the reference for us because the reader he has in mind is one who needs lots of tutoring on the blues but no tutoring on Shakespeare. Meanwhile, here is a quote from the 1945 essay “Nonsense Poetry,” written by none other than George “I ♥ Big Brother”11 Orwell:

When Shakespeare makes Edgar in King Lear quote “Pillicock sat on Pillicock hill”, and similar fragments, he is uttering nonsense, but no doubt these fragments come from forgotten ballads in which they once had a meaning.

This is the most basic danger with assuming, as Greenway does, that the educated white people reading your liner notes are going to be all up on their Shakespeare and not at all up on their blues. Not only are you falsely assuming that educated white people are the only ones worth bothering to talk to, or that the prejudiced perspective of educated white people is the right place to start in the inquiry; you might also be wrong about your target audience’s expertise about stuff they’re supposed to already know and love! Orwell, at least, could get nothing but nonsense out of the reference. If that doesn’t suggest that it’s worth thinking long and hard about what we can assume about our audience, I don’t know what does.12

  1. You only need two digits to be able to write this dude’s entire lifespan! []
  2. A shift that, as far as I can tell, Europe doesn’t really seem to have gone through, at least not as thoroughly: see for instance Santa’s blackface buddy. []
  3. The term “Afro-American” barely shows up as a blip, and “African-American” shows up just as a subset of “African American.” []
  4. Get a load of that dip after World War II up until the Civil Rights Movement was in full swing! Good evidence in favor of the common perception that America spent the 50s pushing all of its problems under a mat, I’d say. []
  5. Even if you do have the opening lines of Beowulf memorized, you may still be out in the cold, if Professor Walkden is correct to argue that everyone has been misunderstanding what “hwaet” means all these years. []
  6. Referring to himself in the third person as “at least one serious researcher” does the same thing. []
  7. I have been reading a lot of Virginia Woolf lately, and her book reviews for the Times Literary Supplement never translate the quotes in French or German or, near as I can tell, any other language. I don’t think this is evidence that Woolf was an asshole so much as the TLS and many other publications like it at that time and even today had an editorial policy of making sure articles sounded like they were written by assholes whenever possible. []
  8. I don’t think this is an unfair characterization of him – Greenway, along with a few other people, did quite a bit to bring this sort of music to mainstream audiences, and I think this is commendable. Like Alan Wilson, another white guy who fell in love with the blues, Greenway shaped musical history for the better. Alan Lomax is probably the most famous and most influential example. []
  9. Plus, ISIS it terrible PR for Islam. They’re like the Westboro Baptist Church with an army and a more effective web presence. []
  10. Do anti-Semites ever criticize klezmer music? []
  11. I picture him wearing a T-shirt with this written on it, but, like, ironically, of course. []
  12. Apart from this massive blog post you just read, obviously. []