Monday, September 15, 2008

Followup on Cultural Appropriation: Summertime

Robin was giving me grief in the comments for having initially confused "Porgy and Bess" with "Showboat," which led me to start thinking about both musicals, which led me to an even better example of what I'm talking about.

Summertime. (And the livin' is easy.)

A standard of both American Idol contestants and New Orleans street musicians, this jazz classic was written by George Gershwin, a New York Jew, who based it on a Russian lullaby, for Porgy and Bess, a musical/opera where it was sung by African Americans. Either Ella Fitgerald's or Billie Holiday's version is probably the most famous, but it has been sung by artists as diverse as Kenney Chesney, Sublime, Bobby McFerrin and New Kids on the Block. It has been covered 4000 times in dozens of languages.

The opera it was written for is based on a novel by a southern white guy who wrote it about southern blacks. Presumably the song would not exist had the novel not come first.

A few questions:

Did Gershwin misappropriate the lullaby in the first place?

Well, given that his dad was Moishe Gershowitz from St. Petersburg, one could certainly argue that Russian culture was his to dip into. But Gershwin himself was an American and the lullaby was from a different part of Russia.

If Gershwin had appropriated it, can the product of an appropriation have such great artistic merit as to make the appropriation excusable?

Does this song belong to:

Southern white people?

New York Jewish people?



I submit that it belongs to us all and that truly great works of art and literature and music become so because they speak to universal truths.



Comrade Kevin said...

Well, is art really for the masses?

And if it is, then it's incompatible with capitalism and personal gain.

Chalicechick said...

Oh really?

According to wikipedia, Gershwin was the richest composer of all time.

But I really got acquainted with "Summertime" when I lived in New Orleans, where it is played by legions of street musicians looking to make a buck off the tourists.


Bill Baar said...

There is a difference between culture offered (and sold) as entertainment, and culture that's sacred ritual.

It's really the appropriation of someone else's sacred rituals that has to be treated gingerly.

I'd have to go back and reread the paragraph, but I have a sense the misappropriation they're worried about here is when we take-over another group's ritual as our own.

Chalicechick said...

Yeah, but the issue comes up a lot with music as well.

Usually sacred rather than secular music, but I did think this was a good example.


Joel Monka said...

Kevin, the masses can sing any song they like as long as they don't record and sell it for profit. No incompatibility at all. A specific performance belongs to the artist, but the song, as CC said, belongs to us all.

Joel Monka said...

Bill- the UU Musicians Network has it on their website, and the first example listed is music.

Anonymous said...

The UU Musician's Network has taken this issue with music to new heights of the ridiculous, in my opinion, but I'm writing a post about that for my own blog and won't repeat it here. ;-)

To CC's larger point, which I take to be that of the universal truth that can be found in great works of art -- exactly so. One does not have to belong to a specific culture to appreciate its richness. I believe it is important to encourage people to express it when something moves them, and to understand that no art is made in a vacuum.

For music in particular, it's a medium that by its very nature begs to be shared and elaborated on. Giving voice to a song is an act of highest complement to its creator. I fundamentally disagree with the notion, for example, that only African Americans can sing spirituals because of their origin in the history of slavery. The raw emotion in those songs is human emotion, and, I feel, a universal truth that can speak to anyone. This is not to say that we should ignore context, hardly, but there are ways of honoring the context and history of a song without banning its use from certain performers.

Bill Baar said...

Great civilizations are synthesis of many cultures. It's really shunning of foreign cultures that has to be guarded against.

It's when we close ourselves off to new things that we get in trouble.

I'll leave it to others to figure out what "Great Civilization" are... but the point here is cultural isolationism and provencialism is a nasty habit that results in intellectual stagnation.

That said...the problem is when we take something from another culture and make a parody of it.

It's the difference between a minstrel show and Jazz. One is a parody and the other is a synthesis creating an American art form. Jazz takes AA music and builds. A minstrel show takes AA music and parodizes it.

A tough call but you know it when you see it.

PG said...

My quick read of "using music, reading, symbols, ritual, or iconography of a group without a willingness to engage in their struggle and/or story" is that it fits OK with what I was talking about in a comment to the prior post. That is, I'm happy to see people who were not born into my family's culture use "music, reading, symbols, ritual, or iconography" from it so long as they do it with some connection to the context -- with some indication that they "get it," that they know what this is about.

I can't be annoyed by anything related to Bollywood, because Bollywood itself is commercial, absurd, self-parodying and almost never meant to be taken seriously. In contrast, I can be slightly irked by taking something from Hinduism when the person clearly doesn't know squat about the religion or its practices. But that's just repeating Bill's point about "a difference between culture offered (and sold) as entertainment, and culture that's sacred ritual."

Mendhi (the henna designs that have become popular but that I've only gotten at weddings) probably is somewhere between the two extremes of film and religion, commercial and sacred. I don't mind if people take that as being just a pretty design; while it has some ritualistic meanings, they aren't very integral to religion.

And of course there's plenty of intra-appropriation -- South Indian culture isn't that cool, so lots of Indian-American kids define "their" culture through things that really are North Indian. Probably 80% of what Americans associate with Indian culture, from the white horse at the wedding to bhangra to naan, is stuff that my grandparents never encountered because they were Southies. I had a sangeet party before my wedding, which was not traditional for my family at all -- I too am a cultural appropriater! (At least instead of pretending it was a traditional sangeet with Indian dance and music, we had a karaoke party instead ;-)

Jennifer said...

Don't forget Me First and the Gimme Gimmes! Their version is fantastic.