Listening to Ghosts: On Hari Kunzru’s “White Tears” and Tyehimba Jess’s “Olio”
By David HeringFebruary 7, 2018
White Tears by Hari Kunzru
Olio by Tyehimba Jess
white people have also taken quite a shine to The Blues, an art form that captured the pain of the black experience in America. Then, in the 1960s, a bunch of British bands started to play their own version of the music and white people have been loving it ever since. It makes sense considering that the British were the ones who created The Blues in the 17th century.
Reading the article, I laughed a hollow laugh but felt complicit. I’m white, and I’ve listened to the blues a lot. I came to it initially through my interest in certain kinds of punk and lo-fi music — records that had the smallest possible production apparatus between performer and listener. I listened to Leadbelly primarily for his voice and playing, but it would be false to claim that I wasn’t also fascinated by the mysterious and violent accounts of his life narrated in striking detail in a number of songs, particularly the harrowing “DeKalb Blues,” in which he describes his attempted suicide by drowning. It was only later that I became aware of the degree of minstrelsy that Huddie Ledbetter underwent when promoting his records to white audiences, playing concerts in a facsimile of work overalls at the behest of John Lomax. A jaw-dropping article headline in a 1937 issue of Life magazine reads “Leadbelly: Bad Nigger makes Good Minstrel.”
I found myself thinking again about this complicated relationship between white listenership and prewar blues when reading Hari Kunzru’s novel White Tears and Tyehimba Jess’s poetry collection Olio. In these works, Kunzru and Jess draw on a discourse of cultural insubstantiality surrounding the prewar blues musician. They do this in different ways — Kunzru’s novel is a ghost story about the vengeful spirit of a dead bluesman, while Olio is preoccupied with the memorializing of real-life musicians who existed in the era before recorded sound. Both works, either explicitly or implicitly, describe an insidious tendency to deny the prewar African-American artist’s corporeality, to depoliticize the artist’s art, celebrating instead these artists as transcendent images of human suffering or endurance. This “ghosting” of the blues deliberately forgets, or forgoes, an inconvenient fact: that the suffering of these artists is not transcendent. It arose, in fact, specifically from African-American experience. The genius of White Tears and Olio are the methods by which Kunzru and Jess critique this depoliticized mode of listenership and make these ghosted histories substantial again.
White Tears concerns two young college-age New Yorkers, Seth and Carter, who set up business as music producers. Carter, the obnoxious heir to a significant old-money fortune, becomes obsessed with prewar blues, believing it to be “more intense and authentic than anything made by white people.” Carter’s fixation culminates in the creation of a fake blues song constructed from a sample of a singing African-American chess player recorded covertly by Seth. The track, which is attributed to “Charlie Shaw,” begins to attract attention from online aficionados, including a retired collector who is adamant that Shaw was a real individual. Soon, Carter and Seth find their lives devastated by a series of violent and unexpected events which appear to be connected to the recording. Two-thirds of the way through the novel, the more traditional mystery narrative collapses into a satirical phantasmagoria of persecution in which Seth is literally haunted by the ghost of the musician he co-created.
Kunzru’s conceit — a vengeful recording — interrogates the complex racial politics of the consumption and collection of blues music by white listeners. This politics is most explicitly explored in the embedded story of Chester Bly, a white blues aficionado whose career is told to Seth by his former apprentice. Bly, an unscrupulous collector who bullies and thieves his way to the 78s he covets, is in part a composite figure of a number of real-life collectors. One of them is Jim McKune, a member of the so-called “Blues Mafia,” a small group of men who collected 78s and held listening sessions in New York during the 1950s. Like McKune, Bly sets a strict limit on the number of discs in his collection — McKune kept only 300 at a time — and his mysterious death recalls McKune’s unsolved murder in 1971. While there’s no evidence that McKune resorted to criminality, Bly’s mercenary nature acts as a satirical interrogation of the philosophy underpinning the study and preservation of prewar blues.
The records so prized by the Blues Mafia — and by Seth and Carter in White Tears — were far from representative of popular prewar blues culture. Collectors held little truck with best-selling records by artists, preferring a starker version of the country blues practiced by relative outsiders such as Skip James and Son House. A key example is McKune’s obsession with Charley Patton, who is now understood as a foundational figure in the history of the Delta blues, but whose performances, captured only on brittle shellac, could easily have faded from human record. The problem with this fixation by collectors on a certain style of skeletal, harrowing country blues is that it has promoted what Marybeth Hamilton has identified as a “faintly colonialist romance with black suffering.” For example, blues collectors often rejected gospel records because, in the words of music researcher and producer Ian Nagoski, “it didn’t fit into their vision of this quasi-demonic, earthy, raw folk-music thing.” This discourse of “quasi-demonic” music, with its focus on suffering, elides the musician themselves. To the degree that the record-object itself comes into focus, the musicians themselves become ghosts.
On occasion, this ghostliness inspired white musicians to create a new and purportedly authentic identity. The creation of Charlie Shaw in White Tears recalls the folk musician John Fahey’s real-life invention of “Blind Joe Death,” a pseudonym printed onto records, some of which were placed in stores for collectors to find. When he discussed the record, Fahey conflated his own demons with the experience of African Americans in poverty: “Blind Joe Death was my death instinct. He was also all the Negroes in the slums who were suffering. He was the incarnation, not only of my death wish, but of all the aggressive instincts in me.” I enjoy Fahey’s music, but his use of the impoverished African American as an authenticating figure of suffering and aggression is deeply troubling. It’s almost as if, on Fahey’s view, African-American experience has become synonymous with death itself. This question of authenticity is also inherent in the act Fahey’s record stages: an impeccably faked recording aimed at fooling listeners into thinking they’re listening to a type of music that communicates an authentic, otherworldly experience of suffering. This fixation on the “quasi-demonic, earthy” blues can depoliticize the pre–Civil Rights era reality behind these records. Hamilton describes the philosophy of the so-called “pure blues” prized by McKune as “searing, personal, and apolitical … real, authentic blues was not protest music.” Kunzru pointedly puts similar sentiments in the mouth of Seth, who doesn’t like the idea of the blues being “contaminated by current affairs.” Furthermore, the very act of collecting also involves, at least in part, an attempt to own or curate an experience not one’s own. While many collectors are committed to preserving recordings, and in some cases, such as that of Chris King, to remastering versions for posterity and the public, certain individuals, such as Robert “Mack” McCormick, were notorious for their purported hoarding of old materials.
In fabricating their “authentic fakes,” and by erasing the physical or historical specificity of the musicians, these curators explicitly invoke supernatural terms. Jim McKune reportedly described listening sessions as “séances,” a term that presupposes the existence of both a ghost and a medium or gatekeeper (McCormick, whose never-published biography of legendary blues musician Robert Johnson was to be called Biography of a Phantom, archived ghost stories as well as blues records). In a séance, the musician becomes a spirit only the collector can summon, a gesture demonstrating ownership not only of the physical record but also the voice within. The scarcity of certain prewar 78s accentuates the collector’s role as the only person with access to the deceased musician. While I’m of course not suggesting that all collectors hold this view, it nevertheless remains a factor in the culture of collection and archiving of prewar blues. Hamilton reproduces a quote from the collector Robert Gordon, who believed the preservation of blues kept “a bunch of negroes from becoming utterly worthless and modern in the city coon sense,” and a separate observation from an unnamed journalist who alarmingly literalizes this denial of the corporeal: “When black [sic] takes on the prowlings and pratings of the white race and becomes a strutting chrysalis in silk shirts and Ford cars, the mystery is gone forever.” Better, presumably, for them to remain ethereal, pure, suffering. Civil rights and equality are, of course, not compatible with a disembodied subject.
The racist approach to disembodiment in these quotes recalls a connection between the ghostliness afforded to blues musicians and the historical term “spook” as a racial slur. While the origins of the epithet are unclear, it is thought that it was used to refer to the so-called “invisibility” of darker skin. “This is the reason for the alleged spookiness of blacks,” argues David Marriott in Haunted Life, “to submit to it is to suffer dissolution.” Marriott sees in the racist use of “spook” a connection “between race and terror, magic and surveillance, idolatry and power; as a verb it makes visible the impenetrable unseen that our self-deceptions bid us master and so keep at a remove.” Conversely, the most famous invisible man in African-American literature begins his narrative with the assertion that “I am not a spook […] I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone.” Ralph Ellison’s defiant philosophy of embodiment can also be found in his essay “Richard Wright’s Blues,” in which he calls for an understanding of blues as a specifically corporeal, embodied phenomenon: “The blues is an impulse to keep the painful details and episodes of a brutal experience alive in one’s aching consciousness, to finger its jagged grain, and to transcend it, not by the consolation of philosophy but by squeezing from it a near-tragic, near-comic lyricism.” This fingering and squeezing promises transcendence not via an abstract simulacrum of suffering, but through a physical process of touch, pain, and sense memory. For Ellison, in order to understand the blues, we must recognize it as an embodied, physically specific experience, not as a ghostly image.
In White Tears, Charlie Shaw assumes neither a wholly embodied nor disembodied form. He is a man with a specific history, but also a spirit seeking revenge for a fate — unjust incarceration and execution — suffered by vast numbers of African Americans in the South in the early 20th century (Carter’s family fortune, it is revealed, comes from the same penitentiary business which incarcerated Shaw). At times Shaw appears as a physical entity, while at others he possesses Seth’s body. Kunzru weaponizes the figure of the ghosted blues musician, reconfiguring the insubstantiality of the revenant Shaw as a relentless, brutal haunting. The “dissolution” to which Marriott refers becomes a terrifying omnipresence — Shaw is both everywhere and nowhere — through which those who sought to profit from his life can be pursued. Shaw’s haunting also disables the collector’s role as gatekeeper or medium; to be haunted is to lose control of a ghost. At the apex of the haunting Seth, cornered by a physical avatar of Shaw, tries desperately to will the revenant back into the record, to make him ghostly again: “He makes me feel insubstantial. It is not logical to feel this way. I am alive […] The ghost is him.” Shaw’s vengeful reappearance is the expression of a desire for others to finger the jagged grain of his life, to force those who would invoke his name to experience those historical injustices visited upon African Americans not as some abstract image of suffering, but as real-world agony and fury.
Tyehimba Jess’s Olio does not describe a story of revenge, but the collection is similarly engaged with a desire to evoke the specificity of the lives of African-American musicians who have fallen into obscurity. In the case of Olio, most of the real musicians mentioned by Jess have faded from popular memory because they lived before recording technology. Jess indicates that this culture of African-American entertainment has become lost and subsumed into the later, and whiter, tradition of vaudeville. Olio is the name for, in Jess’s definition, “the second part of a minstrel show which featured a variety of performance acts,” and in the collection Jess inhabits the voices of these real-life musicians, staging a new Olio complete with playbill and cast of characters. As with White Tears, Jess reanimates these ethereal voices on the page. Musicians and artists such as Blind Tom, Henry “Box” Brown, The Fisk Jubilee Singers, and Sissieretta Jones become revoiced. Jess plays the role of medium through which the voices of the dead are reanimated. Unlike those Blues Mafia members whose ownership of prewar blues records gave them the power to summon those voices from the void and control over who could listen to them, Jess pointedly names his cast as the “Owners of this Olio,” ceding control of the stage to these real lives in all their substance.
Jess’s previous collection, Leadbelly (2005), set the ground for Olio, experimenting with a dialogic form that seeks to emancipate Huddie Ledbetter’s voice from the simulacrum of African-American blues authenticity constructed by John Lomax. In the poem “Leadbelly v. Lomax at the Modern Language Association Conference, 1934,” the letters of Lomax and the imagined response of Ledbetter are set alongside each other to be read either as separate columns or as a single continuous voice. Those familiar questions of authenticity and suffering are played out in this dialogic fashion, with Ledbetter’s voice on the left and Lomax’s on the right:
By giving Ledbetter not only a response but a simultaneous utterance, Jess destabilizes the power balance behind the real Ledbetter and his simulated image. Like Charlie Shaw’s possession of Seth in White Tears, this dialogic form affords the silenced artist an opportunity to speak back against the voice that would mediate between himself and the world. Ledbetter’s speech is concerned here with the specificity of subjective detail, freeing him from that overall-clad image proffered by Lomax.
In Olio, this dialogic structure develops further. Jess’s mediumship affords the musicians in Olio the same ghostly quality as Charlie Shaw, enabling them, through a synthesis with Jess’s own voice and experience as 21st-century poet, to respond to events after their death. This occurs most directly in a section titled “Mirror of Slavery/Mirror Chicanery,” where the musician Henry “Box” Brown rewrites several of the poems from John Berryman’s Dream Songs. Berryman’s collection also features a protagonist named Henry and, of course, the controversial figure Mr Bones, whose minstrel persona evokes that same image of Othered “blackness” as Fahey’s Blind Joe Death. The Dream Songs are renamed here by Jess as “Freedsongs.” In a similar fashion to Ledbetter’s dialogic response to Lomax, Brown and Jess interrogate and rewrite Berryman’s poems to describe the details of Brown’s life and his escape from slavery. In this way, that earlier mediumship practiced by blues collectors becomes a counterpoint whereby Brown’s experience inflects Jess’s, and vice versa. Here, the medium cedes control and enters instead into dialogue. The more ambitious form of Olio also allows Jess to move beyond the solo voice of Leadbelly. In White Tears, when Charlie Shaw’s ghost declares that “I have found a way back up into the world,” he does so alone through a kind of violent possession: the ghost forcibly, vengefully becomes flesh. The materializing of Jess’s musicians is different, and plays on a further meaning of “Olio,” “a miscellaneous mixture of heterogeneous elements.” In Olio, the process of substantiating is configured instead as a vast generational performance, a polyphony of voices.
When discussing Olio, Jess has remarked that “they were not, the first two generations out of slavery, just thinking about self-preservation but self-expression as a means towards self-preservation.” Olio plays upon the possible meanings of self-preservation, as both survival-in-the-world and the preservation of art as a way to inscribe the lives of these musicians into American history. This notion of “preservation” extends here to the materiality of the page itself. Olio contains a series of pages that can be removed from the book and folded into torus or Möbius strips, the better to “liberate their lines from the tyranny of two-dimensional reality.” In one example, Jess instructs the reader to “cut thru the dotted perforation to free the comedians from the medium of two-dimensional tête-à-tête. Take the last lines and loop them into the first. The jokesters will gently coax their heads and feet together so you can listen to them sing three-dimensionally.” Through this gesture, the musicians of Olio reemerge from historical obscurity onto the page, before the page itself emerges physically from the book and into the world as a three-dimensional object. This metafictional gesture surpasses even White Tears, where the ghost becomes embodied in the world of the novel, by performing the move from insubstantiality to materiality through the physical properties of the book itself, sending the voices of these artists out into the world of three-dimensionality.
What should one do, then, when listening to the blues? For me, to read Kunzru and Jess’s defiance of the “ghosted” African-American musician is to make oneself aware of the unconscious preconceptions that underpins white listenership. To listen to the blues should involve a self-conscious process, one that goes beyond the emotional reaction to a sad song or plaintive melody, or the myth-making that accompanies those artists whose lives are largely lost to record. In essence, these texts call for a listenership that resists passivity and easy cultural stereotypes. In the Freedsongs, Jess uses the word “blues” as a verb. This reappropriation of “blues” as an action, which underpins both Olio and White Tears, combats the image of the musician as ghostly, suffering, authentic, and silenced. The ability to “blues” allows those once ghostly figures to awake, to participate, to speak to us across time, and to perform a transcendence of circumstance that acts against reification and dissolution. As Kunzru states defiantly in White Tears’s coda, when describing the act of listening to an old record, “Does it matter that one of you is alive and one is dead?”
David Hering is a lecturer in American literature at the University of Liverpool, United Kingdom. He is the author of David Foster Wallace: Fiction and Form (2016). He would like to dedicate this article to the memory of his friend and colleague Nick Davis.
David Hering is a lecturer in American literature at the University of Liverpool, United Kingdom. He is the author of David Foster Wallace: Fiction and Form (2016) and editor of Consider David Foster Wallace: Critical Essays (2010).
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