What's the connection between blackface minstrelsy and rock and roll?
I began my career as a rock journalist and critic. And from the beginning of my interest in rock and roll, I was fascinated by the question of, "When did it first become cool for white teenagers to pretend they were black?" Obviously, from Elvis Presley to Beck that has been one of the primary impulses behind rock and roll. But it goes back a lot further than Beck's imitating a rap star, saying, "I got two turntables and a microphone," or Elvis Presley singing, "That's All Right, Mama" in emulation of Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup. It goes back beyond the jazz performers, musicians such as Benny Goodman and the nice Jewish boys from the housing projects of Austin Hill in Chicago. It goes back before the turn of the century when immigrant songwriters such as George Gershwin and Irving Berlin fell in love with black culture. And it goes all the way back to blackface and minstrelsy before the Civil War. And so in a way rock and roll led me to a long, tortuous path to Stephen Foster because that's where really this interplay and intermix of black and white culture that so defines American music to this day really began.
Think of, for instance, and this is not restricted to America any more since rock and roll is an international language, but think of Mick Jagger performing almost as if he were a minstrel performer, the sort of extravagant mimicking and caricaturing of black mannerisms that many people do in rock and roll. Think for instance of "I Heard It Through the Grapevine," when Marvin Gaye and Gladys Knight and the Pips sang the original versions of the song. They sang "I heard it through the grapevine." Then when a white boy did it, John Fogerty in Creedence Clearwater, he sang, "I hoid it through the grapevine," almost as if he was going to exaggerate the black characteristics. That's pure minstrelsy right there. And of course that was the minstrelsy, that's what was happening and the sort of the exaggerated caricatured stereotypical black dialect of minstrel songs in the 1830s and 1840s.
It's kind of like in the 1950s if you were a middle class guy and you saw Elvis, you knew that Elvis was shaking his hips in ways that weren't typically countenanced for white middle class boys, and that's why all the citizens' councils in the South called Elvis "nigger music" and were terribly afraid that Elvis, white as he was, being ambiguously raced just by being working-class, was going to corrupt the youth of America. Stephen Foster was deeply attracted to this kind of ambience of the minstrel show.
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