Singer Billie Holiday was a known drug user. Harry Anslinger, commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, was a known racist. Anslinger believed that drugs caused black artists to “step out of line.” One song of Billie’s particularly offended him and he ordered Holiday not to perform it. When she refused, he had his men sell her heroin in order to arrest her. After she spent a year and a half in prison, the feds declined to renew her cabaret license, ending her career as a nightclub singer.[i]
Holiday did not stop performing—she could sell out Carnegie Hall, always performing the song that offended Anslinger. When she fell back to her heroin habit, ending up in a New York City hospital, he sent his men to handcuff her to the bed, forbidding the doctors to treat her. She died within days.[ii]
An ugly, heartbreaking story. But one that I’m using to introduce a complex, politically charged topic, which explains my segue from Billie Holiday to the slogan, “Buy American.”
Consider Toyota trucks. The company is Japanese owned. The Tundra, a full-sized pickup, is manufactured in Texas. A 2012 study revealed that, for example, Chevrolet’s Silverado had considerably less American materials than did the Tundra.[iii] So, is the truck American or Japanese?
And consider tariffs, meant to protect American manufacturing. In the late 1980s, Ronald Reagan imposed a huge tariff on Japanese-manufactured crystal display screens. One of the first casualties to this protectionist move was American computer manufacturers. The Japanese product was a necessary component of this country’s computers. The tariff raised prices, and American sales plummeted. This isn’t just the law of unintended consequences in action—this is an illustration of the difficulty of sorting out elements of origin.
It’s simple enough to say, “Buy American,” but when examining all things human, anomalies abound. We humans are messy and intertwined. Claims of purity are phony. Adults know this. Children and ideologues do not.
“Race theorists, who are as old as imperialism itself, want to achieve racial purity in peoples whose interbreeding, as a result of the expansion of world economy, is so far advanced that racial purity can have meaning only to a numbskull.”
― Wilhelm Reich, The Mass Psychology of Fascism
Now, consider the great American music form that traces its roots to West African tradition and slavery. Call and response, polyrhythms, blue notes and field hollers led directly to what we now call the blues.[iv]
But the blues had European influences as well.
The harmonica, a mainstay instrument of the blues, was invented in Vienna, Austria. The tuning (as well as the blow-and-draw mechanism) was invented by Joseph Richter in 1826. A German clock maker, Matthias Hohner, began producing harmonicas and shipping them to the United States in 1857. The instrument was immediately popular. Abraham Lincoln carried a harmonica in his pocket throughout the Civil War.[v]
Likewise, the guitar comes from Europe, credited to Spanish guitar maker Antonio Torres Jurado.[vi]
The twelve-bar progression is also European. Bob Brozman, the guitarist and ethnomusicologist, characterizes the blues as “a hand-built compromise between the modal music of Africa and the diatonic (chord changes) music of Europe.”[vii]
White blues players contributed to the music. Author Imran Rahman-Jones notes that playing the blues was “one of the only times whites and blacks would mix.”[viii]
My novel, Sins in Blue, explores themes of cultural appropriation. It’s my sense that the current debate suffers from the same problem as tariffs and Toyota trucks. The quest for purity, racial or cultural, is essentially flawed. Claims of cultural appropriation presuppose pure origins. And pure origins aren’t common, either in the creative process or the human condition.
Blues themes of love, injustice, and whiskey are not limited to one race. As for the element of slavery, music conveys things that words can’t. Perhaps there’s a different kind of awareness to be had for musicians who look beyond the three chords.
Which brings me back to Billie Holiday. Consider her iconic song, “Strange Fruit”—the piece that Anslinger hated. Imagine the courage necessary to risk everything for a song! Playing to pitch-dark rooms with a single spotlight on her face, Holiday placed America’s shame center stage:
Southern trees bear a strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees[ix]
The songwriter was Abel Meeropol, a white, Jewish-American man born in the Bronx. He taught English at DeWitt Clinton for seventeen years. His inspiration for the song was a historical photograph that disturbed him. During his lifetime, he never visited the Deep South.[x]
The Holiday/Meeropol collaboration has since been covered by other musicians including Nina Simone, Jeff Buckley, and Siouxsie and the Banshees. Those embracing diversity might well consider that trio of artists to be a just measure of Billie Holiday’s triumph.
Note: The beautiful depiction of Billie Holiday is the work of Wade Dillon, a professional illustrator living in Texas. (https://www.wadedillonart.com/.)
[i] Pak, Eudie. “The Tragic Story Behind Billie Holiday’s ‘Strange Fruit.’” Biography.com, A&E Networks Television, 27 May 2020, http://www.biography.com/news/billie-holiday-strange-fruit.
[ii] Pak, Eudie. “The Tragic Story Behind Billie Holiday’s ‘Strange Fruit.’” Biography.com, A&E Networks Television, 27 May 2020, http://www.biography.com/news/billie-holiday-strange-fruit.
[iii] “What Percentage of Your Truck Is Made in America?” PickupTrucks.com, news.pickuptrucks.com/2012/03/what-percentage-of-your-truck-is-made-in-america.html.
[iv] Rahman-Jones, Imran. “White people, blues music and the problem of cultural appropriation.” Medium. 27 Apr. 2019. Medium. 11 Oct. 2019 <https://medium.com/@IRahmanJones/white-people-blues-music-and-the-problem-of-cultural-appropriation-3e61b8d25c03>.
[vi] A Brief History of the Guitar. 11 Oct. 2019 <https://www.guyguitars.com/eng/handbook/BriefHistory.html>.
[vii] Bob Brozman: The Evolution of the 12 Bar Blues Progression. 11 Oct. 2019 <http://www.bobbrozman.com/tip_evol12bar.html>.
[viii] Rahman-Jones, Imran. “White people, blues music and the problem of cultural appropriation.” Medium. 27 Apr. 2019. Medium. 11 Oct. 2019 <https://medium.com/@IRahmanJones/white-people-blues-music-and-the-problem-of-cultural-appropriation-3e61b8d25c03>.
[ix] Strange Fruit lyrics © Music Sales Corporation
[x] [x] Rahman-Jones, Imran. “White people, blues music and the problem of cultural appropriation.” Medium. 27 Apr. 2019. Medium. 11 Oct. 2019 <https://medium.com/@IRahmanJones/white-people-blues-music-and-the-problem-of-cultural-appropriation-3e61b8d25c03>.