The Intersection at the End of the World

“The most quintessentially American band to have ever existed, Sam,” Dave began as something of a preamble, “and mind you I’ve no love for the word ‘quintessential’ thanks to an alarming overuse of it, was Creedence.”

“As in Clearwater Revival? Willy and the poor boys? The dudes with an alarming aversion to commonplace meteorological phenomena? Four white dudes from California are the most quintessential American band to have existed?” We were on foot at this point, having abandoned the pickup after bouncing the drive shaft clean out of it while merrily attempting to jump a fallen log, in the style of the Duke Boys. “I can’t wait to hear you justify this one.”

We were nearly in Friday Harbor properly at the time of our unfortunate misadventure. Mrs. Wheatley’s (I presumed the Wheatley residence was occupied by a Mrs. given the atrociously cute garden decorations) artichokes bobbed nervously down the hill towards the ferry terminal at our passing. Audra kept pace effortlessly, lending me the curious sensation that her habit of bear-slaying had imbued her with the strength and endurance of her ursine foes. Apart from what was sure to be an interesting conversation about midcentury American pop folk music, the only sound we heard was the caprid clip-clopping of our feet over the pavement. The island’s birds had fled east.

“Answer me a question, Sam. By way of explanation.”

“Ask your question, and I pledge to answer to the best of my ability.”

“What styles of music were invented on this fair nation of ours?”

“The whole country? Shall I include the music of the First Nations?”

He chuckled indulgently, softly, as one might with an insolent child. “If you must.”

“The most obvious genre is Delta Blues. It emerged from the folk music of southern plantations, the child of freed slaves. And I guess you’d have to say that its direct descendants included R&B, Jazz, and of course, Rock and Roll.”

“Is that it?”

“Of course not. Rap was invented in New York, that most American of all cities. And it was invented in the seventies, that most American of all twentieth century decades.”

Dave barked a short laugh. “Anything else? Should the States claim disco?”

I pondered this for a moment. “As a genre, no.” I pondered a bit further. “Or maybe yes. I’m conflicted about this. I see disco as a reactionary art form. A bunch of disaffected folks, weary from having a bunch of dismal, preachy misery mewled at them in a minor key, modified another descendant of Blues, Funk and added some Latin elements. Disco emerged. From that, you eventually get EBM, dubstep, electronica, New Wave, all that stuff. Is it American? In the sense that the first scene happened in Philadelphia, yes. But in the sense that it emerged organically from the cultural conditions of the people making and enjoying the music, not quite as much as other styles. My impression of disco is that it is music prompted by other music. Blues is music born from tyranny. Rap is music born from oppression. American folk music is born from, um…” I had stumped myself. I wasn’t even sure what counted as American folk music. Prairie song? Appalachia jug band jigs? Anything plucked on a banjo? Bob Dylan? I concluded, lamely, “history.”

“How do you feel about Country and Western?”

I didn’t want to admit loathing the genre, so I bluffed. “Near as I can tell, Country owes its origin to Scots-Irish reels and sea shanties. It’s working music. And Western music is a northern perturbation of caballero working songs. Both styles are imports. The guitar, particularly the six-string acoustic, is European, mostly Spanish. Modifications like making the body from steel, or adding electricity are often American, but the instrument itself is Castilian.”

“So derivative styles don’t count in your estimation?”

“I don’t know, maybe? It seems like I should hesitate to reward artists who mimic styles developed in the crucible of misery only to add a smile and a major key with the express intent of selling vinyl to suburban teenagers. It dishonors broken bones, spilled blood, and tears wept.” Dave started to respond, but I barged on with my thought. “Then again, without Mick Jagger ripping off Chuck Berry, the world would be robbed of perhaps the best Rock and Roll song of all time.”

“What’s that?”

“Gimme Shelter.” I glared. “Duh.”

“I thought you once said that More Than A Feeling is the best song.”

“No, I said More Than A Feeling is the world’s greatest song. Totally different.”

“I see.” Dave smirked and continued his interrogation. “So this cultural appropriation is the price we occasionally pay to obtain memorable compositions?”

“I suppose so.”

“And is it fair to say that the institutions of intellectual property work to privilege creators of new compositions over legacy creators?”

“I suppose that too. Unless you get caught out-and-out sampling or lifting lyrics without attribution, there are—were—no legal barriers to mimicking a style or a technique.”

“And would you agree that most of the time it was white artists adopting the styles of black musicians?”

I shrugged. “In terms of record sales, then yes, I suppose so. Most of the music sold in the past century or so can probably trace its provenance to negro spirituals. Why?”

“So then Rock and Roll is racist, and since there’s nothing more American than being racist, Creedence is the most most quintessentially American band to have ever existed. QED.”

Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated? I have. “John Fogerty is,” I could hardly believe I had to say this aloud, “not to the best of my knowledge a racist.”

“Not as in card-carrying member of Stormfront or anything, but he does benefit from privilege predicated on a clear racial bias. Ain’t that the textbook definition of racism?”

“I don’t know. I must be reading the wrong textbooks, because I always thought racism needed a component of, you know, racial animus.”

Dave squinted in my direction. “Are you sure about that? You reckon zoning board members or minimum wage advocates need to have racial animus for their policies to have disparate racial impact?”

It seemed to me as if he were trying to change the subject somehow. “I think you’re mixing up institutional racism with garden-variety racism. Zoning makes it harder to build new housing, which raises the price of existing housing, so lower-income households are imperiled. The outcome might be racially biased, but that has nothing to do with the intent. Regular racism is motivation. Institutional racism is results. There’s some overlap, but not 100%.”

“So some folks are just racist by accident is what you’re saying?”

“Maybe? I’m not sure I really like the term at all is closer to what I mean. It defies categorization?”

“Does it now?”

“You listed two components: privilege and animus. But it isn’t clear what you mean by either. Start with privilege. Is privilege merely the ability to access the benefits of a set of arrangements others have made, or is it the ability to make a new set of arrangements to benefit a particular group?”

“Both seem desirable, wouldn’t you say?”

“Yes, but ‘racist’ as an epithet is meant to provoke sentiments of guilt. Same goes for ‘sexist’, ‘anti-Semite’ or the like. When you call someone a racist merely because they innocently receive the benefits of a system rigged on their behalf, you might find they respond with disbelief or scorn.”

“Sure, but…”

“And the second part, the bigotry part, that’s contextual too.” I could tell I was becoming agitated, but more from the sacred issue of botched communication. This subject has long been rife with misunderstandings, and it has long irked me.

“How is bigotry contextual?”

“That should be obvious. My personal associations, my business associations, my religious associations, and my civic associations are all separate and distinct. I have different rules and customs governing with whom I interact and under what circumstances. My conduct in one area does not necessarily predispose me towards another.”

“I don’t follow.”

“Consider the stereotypical hypocrite politician. How many times have you heard the tale of some local or state Congressman who ran on, say, an anti-gay platform and then got busted on his knees in front an airport bathroom gloryhole? In his personal life, he had no trouble associating with a group of people he found reprehensible in another context. Bigotry.” I punctuated each word with that gesture where you bring one hand in a chopping motion down on the palm of the other hand. “Is. Contextual.”

“That sounds like ordinary hypocrisy to me.”

“You can’t think of a more innocent example? How about another stereotype of the refined Yankee cosmopolitan who still locks her car doors when she sees a black man walking by? She loudly and frequently shouts her opposition to voter ID laws, but she would be aghast if her daughter would bring an undocumented immigrant home for dinner.”

“Well, that’s just more hypocrisy. It’s pretty common, you know.”

“I’m not so sure. I think people honestly have different construal levels for different contexts. Type and instance are different things. I think that there are important distinctions between abstract bigotry and concrete examples of bigoted behavior.”

“What are those important distinctions?”

“I don’t know for sure.” This was one of the reasons I was so irritated by this topic. I don’t like not knowing the contents of my own mind. “And I don’t know which is worse. Mild bigotry combined with powerful institutional access can have immense, far-reaching consequences. A single snooty legislator can impose mild misery on a whole ethnic group. But then even without access to authority, a bigot can still find ways to make life miserable for whatever disfavored minority group members he happens to meet.”

“So let me run this by you: there are petit and grand instances of both privilege and bigotry, and these combine to produce either racist acts or racist sentiments.” Dave was as cheerful as I was irate. I sometimes get the impression that he exults in my misery. “And what’s bothering you is that English has only one word for the four possible combinations.”

“That’s one issue, I suppose.”

“And another thing that bugs you is that accusations of racism are sometimes leveled against people who aren’t bigoted.”

“Against people who aren’t bigoted in the same context that the accusation is being made, yes.”

“And this is your interpretation of intersectionality?”

“I don’t think I know that term.”

“I’m not sure I do either. The way it was explained to me is that there’s something of a hierarchy or a matrix of advantage. Belonging to a low-status group is disadvantageous. Belonging to several adds to that disadvantage. Or maybe it’s multiplicative. It can be hard to tell. But that’s just one dimension of it. Another dimension is access to authority. A minority cop is still a cop and can still make your life a living hell. The difference between the ravings of a newsletter bigot and a bigoted cop is that one can avoid grand jury scrutiny when he bashes the teeth out of your face because you looked at him funny. And now here you are saying stuff about intensity.”

“Sure. Yeah, that adds another dimension. Maybe there are more.”

“I see. But you still agree that Creedence is blatantly, unapologetically cribbed Bayou rock growled by four white dudes from California, right?”

“Well, yeah. But how does that make them any more American than Aerosmith or NWA or… or America?”

“Dude, you know that America the band was founded in London, England. Right?”

“Dude, you know that America the country was founded in London, England. Right?”

Dave was silent a moment as he suppressed a delighted giggle. “Very good, Sam. Now ask yourself this: what other musical act is as widely-loved in the US but as largely ignored abroad as CCR?”

I wrinkled my brow in thought. “Skynyrd maybe? ZZ Top?”

“Good contenders both, but neither of them went all-in on the gratuitous theft of an original sound style. Skynyrd was straight-up rockabilly, and ZZ Top was all over the map. Only Creedence stuck to that particular sound. They’re as consistent as their Australian counterpart.”

“Are you going to make me ask you who their Australian counterpart is, Dave?”

“Of course not, Sam. I would not dare to insult your intelligence.”

We could see the water by then. All that was left was to find the rest of our party and haul out for the mainland.

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