This column is about blackface and popular music, but I’m going to start by talking about White Christmas.
That’s right, the Bing Crosby movie. Because I become a blubbering nostalgist when the holidays roll around, I watch it every year. And when you see a movie 20 times, you start to notice things.
Like, in White Christmas, the “Minstrel Number.” That‘s the medley written by Irving Berlin sung in a Vermont ski lodge rehearsal by Crosby, Danny Kaye, and (George’s aunt) Rosemary Clooney.
The opening song, “I’d Rather See a Minstrel Show,” segues into “Mr. Bones,” in which Clooney sings of “the minstrel men we miss / When Georgie Primrose used to sing and dance to a song like this.” Primrose was a white vaudeville song-and-dance man who wore blackface in the late 19th century.
White Christmas was released in 1954. By then, it was already considered in bad taste for white performers to literally “black up” by rubbing burnt cork on their faces. So the characters pine for the good old days without overtly indulging in racist stereotyping themselves. That let them off the hook in 1954, not so much now.
Of course, recent news events have shown that many — including several political figures in Virginia — have not acted so sensibly in subsequent years, starting with Gov. Ralph Northam (or maybe somebody else, if his denials are to be believed).
The persistence of such offensively racist imagery and its continued capacity to shock — hello, Gucci blackface turtleneck — got me thinking about the long and complicated history of blackface minstrelsy and how the timeline of American popular music as a whole can be considered as one episode after another of white culture “blacking up" — an expression that goes back to the Jim Crow era.
It also took me back to “White Christmas" the song. Until last December, I had never watched Holiday Inn, the 1942 Crosby movie in which Berlin’s song, which became the biggest-selling single in history, first appeared.
How come Holiday Inn never became a seasonal perennial like White Christmas, I wondered? Watching got me a quick answer. The plot of the movie that costars Fred Astaire and Marjorie Reynolds involves Crosby as a Connecticut innkeeper with entertainment themed to holidays throughout the year.
For Lincoln’s birthday, the big production number is called “Abraham,” and it’s a true racist monstrosity. Crosby is outfitted in full blackface, as are all the musicians and dancers.
“When black folks lived in slavery,” Crosby sings in Berlin’s lyric, “Who was it set the darkie free?” Meanwhile, the movie has the audacity to act as though the maid Mamie, played by African American actress Louise Beavers, would have been enjoying the racist spectacle.
I bring up Holiday Inn — which is often shown with the “Abraham” number cut out, but which Turner Classic Movies runs in its entirety — to note how acceptable blackface performance was among major mainstream stars at the time.
The casual white supremacy of blackface was then considered all-in-good-fun showbiz. Judy Garland wore blackface as a teenager in Everybody Sing! in 1938, and two years earlier, Fred Astaire did it in paying tribute to (or caricaturing?) Bill “Bojangles” Robinson in Swing Time, whose title inspired black British author Zadie Smith’s 2016 novel of the same name.
Blackface goes back to the pre-Civil War 19th century, as Eric Lott laid out in his landmark 1993 study Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class, which showed how white audiences were enthralled by their grotesque ideas of black culture while simultaneously feeling superior toward it. Spike Lee gave the book a shout-out in his 2000 film Bamboozled, and Bob Dylan named a 2001 album after it.
And though minstrel performers were largely whites in blackface, it wasn’t exclusively so. “Oh Dem Golden Slippers,” the Mummers’ unofficial anthem, is a minstrel song, but it was written by James A. Bland, an African American who died in 1911 and who’s buried in Bala Cynwyd and who was billed as both “The World’s Greatest Minstrel Man” and “The Prince of Negro Songwriters.”
Watching minstrelsy at work in old movies and reading about it in history books can make blackface seem like the ugly stuff of a far distant past. Of course, this month’s news events make it clear it’s not so entirely buried after all.
But it’s also true that the history of pop music from the 1950s on has, in many ways, been a story of white performers drawing on black musical styles. Not literally wearing blackface, but frequently borrowing or appropriating from black artists.
The shift that happens in the pop culture era is that the appropriators from the dominant culture no longer shoulder signs of repulsion with black culture, and instead are attracted to it and express their admiration of it through their music. But what might seem like borrowing to these white artists can feel like theft to others.
1954, the year White Christmas came out, was also the year that Elvis Presley recorded “That’s All Right (Mama),” his cover of a song by bluesman Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup that ignited a rock-and-roll and pop cultural revolution that wound up benefiting white artists such as himself far more than the blues and R&B performers he borrowed from.
Many more examples can be cited that follow that model through the pop music era.
The Rolling Stones became the world’s greatest rock-and-roll band by drawing on bluesmen like Muddy Waters and Robert Johnson, and Eminem attained a level of commercial success not available to the hip-hop giants whose shoulders he stood on.
And in less artistically satisfying iterations, Robin Thicke took Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give it Up” to the bank with his 2013 “Blurred Lines” copycat smash hit (and got sued for it), and contemporary mush-mouthed white rapper Post Malone has achieved massive popularity despite there being little redeeming quality to the music.
I wouldn’t make too strong a comparison of any of these acts to minstrel performers. The best of them absorb and synthesize the influence of the music they love, while also acknowledging their debt. The Stones, for example, have their own style, so it doesn’t feel like mere mimicry, and they also constantly give props to their African American heroes. Eminem was helped enormously by the color of his skin but never attempted to sound like anything but himself. They benefit even more by being expert appropriators because of the attendant cred.
But still there is an analogy to blackface minstrelsy that is often present in the racial equation of white acts that are enamored of black music as a place where they can go to feel excitement and danger, with the privilege of never have to pay the cost, thanks to the color of their skin.