100 Years Later “Rhapsody In Blue” Is Still Riling Up Debate

A century on from Rhapsody in Blue, debates about cultural ‘theft’ rage still

Kenan Malik

Societies are robbed of subtlety and depth when racism is conflated with the borrowing of ideas

‘The future music of this country must be founded upon what are called negro melodies. This must be the real foundation of any serious and original school of composition to be developed in the United States.” So wrote the Czech composer Antonín Dvořák, in an 1893 essay, a year after he had moved to America to teach at the newly created National Conservatory in New York.

Almost half a century later, a precocious Harvard student by the name of Leonard Bernstein wrote his undergraduate thesis on “The Absorption of Race Elements into American Music”. Searching for a “national” basis for American music, he found it in “Negro music”. “If an American is a sensitive creator,” Bernstein wrote, “jazz will have become an integral part of his palette, whether or not he is aware of it.”

In between Dvořák’s essay and Bernstein’s thesis came a musical work that appeared to give explicit form to their arguments: George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. A work that fused jazz and classical traditions, it was first performed 100 years ago last week on 12 February 1924, in a concert in New York entitled “An Experiment in Modern Music”.

With its memorable clarinet glissando opening, syncopated rhythm and arresting melodies, it was a hit with audiences, on the night and ever since, but savaged by many critics as derivative and stale. Bernstein, writing in 1955, confessed that Gershwin was his “idol” and that he “adored” the Rhapsody. But, he added with a snort, it was “a string of separate paragraphs stuck together with a thin paste of flour and water. Composing is a very different thing from writing tunes.”

Rhapsody in Blue opened up a wider set of debates, too, about the relationship between “high art” and popular art, about racism and cultural differences, about black music and black identity, debates that continue to shape contemporary culture.

Dvořák had imagined that a new generation of African American composers would provide the bridge between “Negro music” and the mainstream classical tradition. The sheer weight of racism blocked off such possibilities. African Americans were barred from most conservatoires and concert halls. So, figures such as Will Marion Cook, Fletcher Henderson and Billy Strayhorn, who in a different America might have helped forge a modernist tradition in the same way as Aaron Copland, Charles Ives and other white composers, instead brought their classical training and sensibility into the emerging vernacular of jazz.

It was jazz that drew upon earlier black folk music – spirituals and blues – and fused it with techniques drawn from European classical traditions to create a new form of modernism that blurred the line between high art and popular music. It was in the sounds created by Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and John Coltrane that America discovered what Dvořák had called “the future music of this country”.

The story, though, is also more complicated. Many today talk of “black music” and “black culture” as a distinct, autonomous tradition. Yet, even under Jim Crow, as the novelist Ralph Ellison observed, black cultures and white cultures were deeply entangled. For Ellison, whose Invisible Man remains one of the great explorations of the black experience in America, the “Negro American writer” is heir not just to the black experience but also “the human experience, which is literature” and which may “well be more important to him than his living folk tradition”.

The same was true of music. Even the blues, Ellison’s friend Albert Murray argued, is “the product of the most complicated culture, and therefore the most complicated sensibility in the world”. For African Americans not to accept their centrality to mainstream American culture was to “surrender their birthright to the propagandists of white supremacy”.

Similarly, in his pathbreaking study of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, the historian and critic George Hutchinson shows it was an intimate part of the development of American cultural modernism. Far from being, as often seen, an autonomous African American cultural movement, it revealed how “‘white’ and ‘black’ American cultures [were] intimately intertwined”. New York became a nursery of modernism because black artists found in the city “release from the restrictive intraracial atmosphere typical of Philadelphia or Washington”.

It was where differences could collide, where African American writers and musicians could draw upon wider European traditions and trade ideas with and borrow themes from white counterparts. Or, as James Baldwin put it, America’s “interracial drama” has “created a new black man” as well as “a new white man”.

The cultural sensibility that Ellison and Murray and Baldwin embodied and that Hutchinson helped excavate has largely decayed. Where once artists and intellectuals celebrated the messiness of cultural interaction, many now decry the “theft” of other people’s cultural wares through “cultural appropriation”, the “unauthorised use”, in the words of a law professor, “of another culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc”. Where Ellison and Murray and Baldwin recognised inextricably interwoven cultures, many see only rigidly demarcated gated cultures. One wonders whether jazz would even have been born behind closed gates.

Critics of cultural appropriation insist that they are opposed not to cultural engagement but to racism. While American modernism melded the cultures of black and white, racism meant that white artists profited in a way that most African Americans could not. Gershwin’s work acquired a status denied to African American composers of the time, such as William Grant Still, whose compositions were often more sophisticated.

Three decades later, racism ensured that the great black pioneers of rock’n’roll rarely received their due, whereas many white artists, from Elvis Presley onwards, were feted as cultural icons.

The issue here, though, as the African American poet and critic Amiri Baraka has pointed out, is not that of cultural appropriation at all. “If the Beatles tell me that they learned everything they know from the blues singer Blind Willie Johnson,” he said in a radio discussion, “I want to know why Blind Willie is still running an elevator in Jackson, Mississippi. It’s that kind of inequality that is abusive, not the actual appropriation of culture because that’s normal.” Conflating racism and cultural appropriation does little to challenge racism but much to rob culture of subtlety and depth.

“I frequently hear music within the very heart of noise,” Gershwin once remarked. A century on from Rhapsody in Blue, the problem too often is that we cannot hear the music for all the political and cultural noise.

Kenan Malik is an Observer columnist

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