Authenticity, From A (zalea, Iggy) to T (-Model Ford)

If you have been reading this blog for a while, you know I consider myself to be engaged in the pursuit of reality. This sounds like it should be an easy task — think of Samuel Johnson kicking a rock and declaring, “I refute it thus!” — but that is not the case, to put it mildly. To begin with, Johnson’s famous kicking-of-the-rock looks very different at an atomic and quantum level than it did to him; everything in our universe consists mostly of empty space. Or so I believe, anyway. I’ve never personally undertaken any science experiment that couldn’t be performed in a high school laboratory. What I believe to be “real” is two percent my own observation and ninety-eight percent received knowledge, obtained from my uneasy perch on the shoulders of Isaac Newton’s giants.

While I can lecture you for hours on everything from the Doppler effect to the velocity of money in a modern economy, the subjects of which I possess a true and complete personal knowledge are minimal. I assure you that you are no different from me in this regard. Consider, if you will, the ridicule that the Insane Clown Posse got for asking how magnets work in a video. Here’s a good example of the progressive response to the ICP. This social justice warrior spends his days fighting against the “conservative war on science” and it’s obvious that he considers himself to be quite the intellectual.

I wonder if he knows how magnets work. If he does, he’s alone in the world, because magnetism is not well understood. When Maya Angelou wrote that “Talent is like electricity. We don’t understand electricity. We use it,” what she really meant was that she does not understand electricity. I understand it just fine and so do most people with a college education. You can explain it to a ten year old. But that doesn’t mean that we understand magnetism, which is a horse of a different color and which has roots in dimly understood corners of quantum mechanics. (By the way, if you ever want an example to demonstrate the chokehold that progressives have on the public discourse, the difference between the way the press has treated the ICP’s factual statement (total ridicule) and the way it has treated Ms. Angelou’s ignorant statement (fawning admiration) is a good place to start.)

Still, when I say that “I understand [electricity] just fine,” what I mean is that I believe the explanations I’ve been given. I haven’t worked out the behavior of free electrons from first principles and scientific observation. I’m relying on a trust chain between myself and the people who have done the work. That trust chain should be a lot more fragile than it is, methinks. Throeau’s old comment about “we may safely trust a great deal more than we do” should not apply to the way all of us will believe just any fucking thing when it comes to “science” and what “science says”. We’re all so trusting it makes me sick. We willingly trust everything and anyone from the repair crew on a Southwest 737 to the 23-year-old who hands you a prescription through the window. Humans trust far too much because to behave any other way would require an outlay of time and energy that nobody, with the possible exception of titled aristocrats dabbling in science, has had since the fall of Man.

I think you get the idea. Reality is a lot harder to grasp than one would originally think. But compared to authenticity, reality is the first level of Donkey Kong. Exhibits A and B in support, Your Honor: Amelia Amethyst Kelly and James Lewis Carter Ford.

My brother has written about the bizarre accusations of “cultural appropriation” and “racism” and “blaccents” brought against Miss Kelly, who performs as “Iggy Azalea”, but I don’t think he’s aware of just how deep the river of progressive hatred runs in this case. Salon, which is a scientifically accurate barometer for what total fucking idiots with liberal-arts degrees are thinking at any given time, has run a half-dozen articles on the woman, each one more abusive and dismissive than the last. They are far from alone in this. Derrick Clifton, who identifies as “black, queer, gender-fluid, intersectional, feminist and on fleek” — this can be shortened easily to “label enthusiast” — wrote a very popular article for DailyDot explaining How To Talk About Iggy Azalea With White People and offering this opinion on Iggy’s rap career:

Sure, she can [rap]. However, there’s a difference between appreciating an artform and adding to its richness and appropriating a minstrel-like caricature that’s composed of various tropes. With Azalea, it’s the obsession over her curvaceous cakes, the “blaccent,” and an overidentification with the abject poverty disproportionately encountered by black folks, as seen in her video for “Work.”

So, Iggy is a racist appropriator because:

* She has a nice body. That bitch.
* She has a “blaccent”.
* She identifies with poverty.

The first point is obviously beneath contempt. “Curves” are not the exclusive property of black women and in any event Iggy has done nothing to modify or change her body besides going to the gym and getting some stupid tattoos. The second point we’ll return to. As for the third point, here are some highlights from her Wiki biography:

The family lived in a house that her father built by hand from mud bricks…Her father, Brendan Kelly, was a painter and comic artist, while her mother, Tanya, cleaned holiday houses and hotels. In pursuit of her desire to move to America, Azalea dropped out of high school. She worked and saved the money she earned by cleaning hotel rooms and holiday houses with her mother… She also said she had no friends and was teased for her homemade outfits…

Yeah, how dare she “overidentify with the abject poverty”. Nothing says “white privilege” like growing up in a mud house and cleaning hotel bathrooms with your mother. Now let’s take a look at Mr. Clifton’s bio:

His gifts of song, speech and writing began developing at five years old, with early training and encouragement from family, teachers and church leaders. He received wide praise for his oratory skills and frequently honored requests to recite famous speeches and poems at various events. Derrick further honed those skills during high school, helping to build and lead a nationally competitive policy debate team.

Derrick came out during high school, becoming the first person of color to lead the Queer-Straight Alliance and forging a variety of advocacy projects. Among many awards, scholarships and distinctions during that time, Derrick spoke in the presence of then-Sen. Barack Obama about race and identity development themes in his autobiography, shortly before Obama announced a presidential bid.

While continuing his studies at Northwestern University, Derrick was brought on as an opinion writer and, eventually, as an editor for The Daily Northwestern. During his two-year tenure, he authored and edited several columns about the intersections of identity, culture and politics. While honing his skills and a unique voice, Derrick’s following expanded beyond Evanston.

Take a minute here to consider the fact that someone with a master’s degree (in progress) from Northwestern, who received enough public acclaim as a “queer” student to speak in front of a US Senator, has decided it’s okay to shit all over someone who used to clean toilets with her mother for a living. Can you see just how far down the fucking rabbit hole we’ve gone? This is nearly the entire problem with identity politics demonstrated in a single episode: a spoiled brat who went to Northwestern and who has spent his whole life from his teen years forward being lionized and praised simply for being both gay and black feels privileged enough to publicly attack a hotel maid for daring to “identify with poverty”. There is nothing “okay” about this. It’s the precise equivalent of a wealthy Victorian aristocrat directing his carriage driver to splash mud on a street person because that person’s existence offends him, right down to the benign approval directed Derrick’s way by the other self-appointed progressive-Internet aristos.

This leaves only the second point in the DailyDot article — the “blaccent” — to consider. Iggy’s speaking voice is not “black”, as has been pointed out approximately one million times in the media. Iggy’s explanation for her rapping accent is that she spent five years learning to rap in the South, living with black men (one of whom, Hefe Wine, beat and abused her and is currently attempting to prove some dodgy “common-law marriage” in a Texas court) and immersing herself in a black milieu. Her performing accent is absolutely imitative — but there is nothing new about that. The Beatles didn’t have the courage to sing with an English accent until they’d sold fifty million records. The default singing voice for rock performers of all colors and nationalities is a California accent. Corey Glover had two platinum records with Living Colour singing in a voice that sounded as white as mine did even though his speaking voice was “black”. Mariah Carey basically “passed” for the first half of her career. Whitney Houston’s singing voice is as different from her speaking voice as Iggy’s rapping voice is from her speaking voice — ever watch that show with Bobby Brown? Whitney’s accent was almost cartoonish but you don’t hear it on The Bodyguard Soundtrack.

Music is, fundamentally, about imitation. John Mayer, who patterned his playing on Stevie Ray Vaughan’s, noted that “when you try to sound like your idols and fail, that’s when you begin to sound like yourself.” There is almost nothing original about any given piece of music or any given performer. When you choose to perform in a certain style of music, you adopt the styles of that music, including the individual “voice” of your instrument. The opening lick from “Layla” is a sped-up version of Albert King’s opener from “As The Years Go Passing By”. Was Clapton trying to sound black? What about when he played “Hideaway” on the Bluesbreakers album, a song written and performed by Freddie King? Was he trying to sound black? When John Mayall sang in an American accent on that same record, was he trying to “appropriate colonial accents”? When Patrick and I played “Josie” and I imitated Fagen’s nasal twang, was I “appropriating” a degree from Bard College? Was Patrick “acting black” by playing Chuck Rainey’s line?

The fact of the matter is that most rappers use the “blaccent” because most rap has been done in that voice. Sure, Eminem and Macklemore generally don’t do it; but calling Iggy a racist for not sounding like Eminem is like saying that I’m a wigger for running through a pentatonic A minor because Yngwie plays neo-classical scales. What about African-American rappers who didn’t grow up poor? Do they have a right to the “blaccent”? Miles Davis was the son of a doctor — did he got a right to play da blues, man?

Viewed through any sort of critical lens, even a cloudy one, the accusations against Iggy disappear like morning fog in sunlight. Which forces people to fall back on anti-tourism and the issue of authenticity. I’ll talk about anti-tourism in the near future, because it’s the guiding principle of modern media ideas on race and it’s hilariously illogical, but for now we’ll focus on authenticity.

“Authenticity” is a concept that means a huge amount to intellectuals of all colors. It’s at the center of so-called hipster behavior. In a world where authenticity had power, Iggy Azalea wouldn’t be allowed to rap. No white person would be allowed to play “black music” of any stripe, because that’s inauthentic. You would only be allowed to create certain types of art and product and those types would be determined by the circumstances of your birth, race, sexuality, and life experiences.

Which brings me to James Lewis Carter Ford, who performs as “T-Model” Ford. He is probably the most authentic performer of the blues since Muddy Waters… no, make that since before Muddy Waters. T-Model was a truck driver, manual laborer, and convicted murderer who doesn’t even know his birthday and who had done years in prison before he ever picked up a guitar in his late fifties. The guitar was a gift from a woman, of course. He started to play and the blues just came out of him. Almost, anyway. He was strongly influenced by Chicago blues music he’d heard in prison, and that blues was often performed by professional musicians who hadn’t suffered and lived the blues like he had… wait, let’s just get off that train before it takes us to Crazytown, okay? Back to T-Model.

Mr. Ford played a sort of rough-hewn blues for nearly forty years, usually on that pawnshop Peavey he’d started with. He drank entire bottles of cheap whiskey on stage. He continued to have issues with the law and, apparently, carry a firearm to his gigs. He sang about the problems and misery of his life before he picked up the guitar, about prison, about women. He was the real deal and if Iggy Azalea is the fakest “black” performer in history, as has been alleged, then T-Model Ford is the realest.

There’s just one problem. He’s not that good. He’s great to listen to sometimes, but if you had to take just one blues artist to a desert island it sure as shit would not be T-Model Ford. You’d much rather have someone like Peter Green, who wrote and played the blues with skill and facility that T-Model couldn’t touch. Or someone like Robert Cray, who developed a unique style and touch that passes the name-that-tune-in-two-notes test. Or someone like Albert King, maybe my favorite blues performer of all time.

But here’s the problem. Peter Green was a white Englishman who heard the Chicago blues on pirate radio and wanted to imitate it. Robert Cray grew up in a middle-class household and was performing for a living before he turned twenty. Even Albert King, who picked cotton on a plantation in his teens and then drove a bulldozer, was firmly into the pro-musician groove by his early twenties and could afford a Gibson Flying V. None of these guys ever shot anybody or went to prison or got poisoned by a woman or worked on a chain gang or plumbed the depths of human sorrow before they started making records. They didn’t live the blues — they played the blues.

Muddy Waters reportedly told Little Walter, “We don’t live the blues, we play it.” Miles Davis said something similar to his bandmates. I repeat: The best musicians to ever play the blues didn’t live the blues. You think that’s unique to the blues? Ask Dr. Dre how much crime he’s actually done in his life, how many people he’s shot. Rick Ross was a correctional officer, not a gangster. Ice-T was a gang member once — but he’s spent a much larger portion of his life playing a cop on television. Axl Rose wasn’t born in Los Angeles. Robert Plant wasn’t actually a character in a Tolkien book. Barry Manilow wrote a lot of songs but “I Write The Songs” wasn’t one of them.

Musicians are performers, assuming a character for the purpose of performing music. If you want authenticity in your life, you’d better look somewhere else besides music, maybe “upcycling” or “curating” or something like that. Iggy’s a fake. And so was Dr. Dre, and so was Peter Green, and so was Miles Davis.

T-Model Ford was real. He lived the blues, he played the blues, he died like a bluesman. If you want “the realest”, there it is. But trust me: when it comes to making art, you don’t want the real. You want the artificial, the false, the imagined, the unreal. You want a creation. You want art. In short, you want the fake.

16 Replies to “Authenticity, From A (zalea, Iggy) to T (-Model Ford)”

  1. AvatarKen

    Excellent article. Regarding the first few paragraphs related to human trust and science. A good book to read on how to objectively assess science is: Bad Science: Quacks, Hacks, and Big Pharma Flacks by Ben Goldacre. It talks about how information is gathered, how good science is performed (vs. bad) and ultimately how that information is picked apart, contorted by either the media or special interest groups. The MMR vaccine has an entire chapter. Quite an interesting read.

  2. AvatarPat

    Great read Jack. I will put forward the notion, however, that Salon isn’t even read by “total fucking idiots with liberal arts degrees” and is therefore a straw-man argument 🙂

  3. Avatarclark

    I’m not really familiar with the blues artists you mention, but the Reverend Gary Davis was REAL as FUCK and he played the most amazing, transcendent blues. Edge case, I know, but listen to Twelve Gates to the City or I Am the Light of This World, on the YouTube. Technical chops, astonishing originality, profound spirituality.

    I know he led a lot of people like Jorma Kaukonen into places they did not belong but he can’t be blamed for that.

    I’d love to hear where he fits into your model. In my opinion there’s no white blues player fit to brush his teeth with Gary Davis’ urine, but hey that’s just me

    • AvatarRonnie Schreiber

      Some random thoughts:

      I don’t know exactly how closely Jorma studied with Gary Davis, but David Bromberg used to take the blind reverend to church services on Sunday and I think he’s earned the right to play the music of his mentor. Come to think of it, how many people would even know about Rev. Davis if Jorma and Hot Tuna hadn’t played Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning?

      If we’re going to talk about cultural appropriation then I’d point out that the two musical instruments most closely associated with the blues are the guitar and the harmonica, which come from Spain and Germany, not Africa, and speaking of Africa, the blues scale is not quite identical with the common scale used in West Africa.

      Blues, rock and jazz are very much American music, the result of different musical cultures learning from each other.

      Can a white goy sing the Jews?

      John Lee Hooker had a job and instead of getting ripped off by record companies, he recorded under assumed names to increase his take. John Lee died a millionaire in Beverly Hills.

      Chester Burnett (Howlin’ Wolf) was proud of the fact that when he went north to Chicago to record for the Chess Brothers (two Jews without whom we probably wouldn’t even know about electric Chicago blues) he drove his own car, having been a successful working musician for a while.

      Muddy’s comment to Little Walter was cautionary. Walter died at 38, I believe the victim of a stabbing and his face was almost as scarred as an NHL goalies in the day’s before goalie masks.

  4. Avatariain

    Very interesting post. Any mention of T-Model Ford in mainstream media is worthwhile as he is grossly under appreciated. I completely agree that many blues players are more proficient, few can match the raw feel, anger and energy from this guy. His work with Jimbo Mathus, and Jimbo’s work with Buddy Guy on Sweet Tea get close to this energy.

    Have been reading an interesting biography/analysis of Jimi Hendrix called Crosstown Traffic that gets into this whole issue of authenticity around racial lines, backgrounds, nationalities, musical genres. It’s been around since the 50’s ( Elvis playing ‘colored’ music ) and is still happening.

    • JackJack Post author

      I think T-Model is a brilliant bluesman and I’ve paid real money for a fair amount of his stuff but I don’t think he’d be in most people’s top ten despite his genuine raw feel.

  5. AvatarRich

    I like to read a broad spectrum of content but I have to draw the line at Salon. It’s so off the charts progressive it’s verging on self parody. It’s worse than the BBC.

  6. AvatarFelis Concolor

    Ooohh, you mentioned that other Maya!

    I far prefer the black scar submitted by the “egg roll” (really, Perot: that’s the best you could come up with?) to the 2 bronze turds contaminating the memorial’s grounds.

  7. AvatarDan S

    Beautifully written Jack. Hitting the nail on the head about the driving force behind “hipsterism”… guess I’ll have to go listen to some T-model.

    As an aside, I think this came up late last year, but any idea if you’ll be doing any driver training/coaching at mid ohio or (ideally?) one of the michigan tracks this year?

  8. AvatarDomestic Hearse

    Ima let you finish, but Wynton give us one’a da best cross-cultural color-blind reality performances of all time…

  9. Avatar-Nate

    I wonder if this is maybe an envious rant ~ I was listening ti ‘T’ Model Ford to -day , he’s not on my regular list but he seems to play just fine to me .

    As I grew up listening to and live in the Ghetto , I don’t need / want highly polished Blues .


  10. AvatarWilliam

    A thoughtful piece, Jack, and on target. I have an electrical engineering PhD from a very fancy school, and while I can wave my hands and talk about spin polarization, I don’t get, on any deep level, how magnets work. Few of my peers can do better.

  11. Pingback: » Quote of the week

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.