George Gershwin: Rhapsody In –Cultural Appropriation?
Today is George Gershwin’s 118th birthday (1898-1937). And I’m an unabashed fan. This despite the fact that a key part of his artistic achievement has also made his work controversial for some.
Yes, I’m talking about one of this month’s hot buzzwords, “cultural appropriation.”
This phrase came along after Gershwin left us (way too soon, dead of a brain tumor before age forty); but the charge was around even when he was alive and composing.
Yet from all I gather, Gershwin would not have denied it. Indeed, he was proud of mixing various streams of American musical cultures in his work, even gloried in it.
Yet Gershwin also took pride in not “borrowing” other music, but being influenced by it. His melodies, he insisted, were his own.
Take what is perhaps his most famous songs, “Summertime” from his 1935 “folk opera,” Porgy & Bess.
“Summertime” has been recorded over 30,000 times, by musicians of all colors, in many languages, and in styles ranging from solemn spiritual-like, to new wave/ska. Versions of it have made the pop charts numerous times.
Surely Gershwin’s influences included the classic spirituals and blues. (Listen to Odetta singing, “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” which some have cited as similar to “Summertime.”) But they ranged much more widely. Musicologists have also pointed to a Ukrainian lullaby as a likely influence on “Summertime.”
Seem far-fetched? Not really: Gershwin’s father was a Ukrainian immigrant; and the lullaby was performed by a Ukrainian national chorus at Carnegie Hall in the 1920s. Listen to this haunting choral version here; I heard the influence clearly.
Influential — but not the same. Gershwin likely took something from the Ukraine, something from the black south, and mixed them with his own art, adding a crucial ingredient: original genius.
“Porgy & Bess” has been condemned as racist cultural appropriation, and praised as a towering American classic. But one undeniable virtue of its continuing popularity is that it has offered creative work to many black artists in its all African American cast.
In debates over “cultural appropriation,” an alternative phrase/concept has emerged: “hybridity.” A hybrid word is one that builds on elements from various cultural streams to make something new. And for many cultural critics, “hybrid” works are politically acceptable, in contrast to those deemed “appropriated.”
Is this a subjective judgment? (Does the pope’s dog have fleas?)
Here’s one musicologist/philosopher’s recent summary:
From the Routledge Companion to Philosophy & Music (2011), Chapter 17, “Appropriation & Hybridity,” by James O. Young, pages 179-180:
“Amiri Baraka (formerly Leroi Jones) has maintained that in order to perform the blues a musician requires ‘the peculiar social, cultural, economic, and emotional experience of a black main America . . . . The materials of the blues were not available to the white American.” (Jones, A. The Music: Reflections on Jazz and Blues, 1963: 148) . . . We may call this the cultural experience argument. . . .
One sometimes hears that only Italians can successfully sing Italian music, but the empirical evidence suggests otherwise. By most accounts, Kathleen Battle (African American) and Kiri Te Kanawa (Maori) have mastered bel canto singing as well as Cecilia Bartoli.
Similarly, many authorities believe that non-African Americans have created aesthetically successful jazz and blues performances. . . . Ray Eldridge, the African American jazz trumpeter, was an advocate of the cultural experience argument. Despite his standing as the greatest trumpet soloist of his time, in a blind listening situation, he misidentified the cultural background of performers more than half the time. (Feather, l. The Book of Jazz, 1959: 47)
The examples just given may indicate that appropriation can give rise to good music. Examples of good hybrid music are easy to find . . . . George Gershwin and Irving Berlin produced masterpieces of hybrid music by appropriating from African American culture. In the past forty years, aesthetically valuable hybrid compositions have become too common to enumerate. While it must be admitted that not all hybrid compositions are worth hearing, arguably hybridity is the most important source of new and aesthetically valuable ideas in contemporary music.”
For me the key term in Young’s commentary is “arguably.” Arguments continue, and won’t be settled here. But one thing is settled: I’m still a fan of George Gershwin. The equation is: cultural influence and mixing + plus genius = Rhapsody in Blue; Concerto in F; An American In Paris; Porgy & Bess; and so much more that has enriched my life, and that of many others.