Let’s Save Negro Music1, written by John Henry in the Freedom periodical in New York, is interesting to me and relevant to our class discussion for a number of reasons. Primarily, it contains an interesting contemporary perspective on 1950s cultural appropriation. I can’t speak for my classmates, but it was news to me that cultural appropriation was discussed at all in that time. So, though the term ‘cultural appropriation’ itself may be a more recent invention, it is simultaneously refreshing and disheartening to know that it was discussed so long ago, relatively speaking. In the article itself, John Henry goes into detail on how white artists were capitalizing on America’s fascination with African American music, especially the Blues, and making significant capital in the process. One example that he uses is that of the popular singers Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Kay Starr. Henry says:
“[T]he country’s musical taste, shaped as it is by the hucksters, calls for denuding this music of its social meaning born in the struggles and hopes of Negro people. . . Hence you get Kay Starr’s best-selling “Didn’t it Rain.” But who remembers Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s great rendition of this exciting Biblical story? Get the two records and see which “moves” you more. That is, if you can find Sister Tharpe’s.”
Henry’s striking assessment of the situation is both refreshing and depressing. To elaborate, on the one hand it is good to know that the issue of cultural appropriation is not some passing millennial fad, (not that I thought it was in the first place) but has been talked about extensively before now, and is rightfully reaching a boiling point at last. However, on the other hand, it is disheartening that such an issue has been discussed for so long and still not have reached any sort of conclusion. Whether that is due simply to it’s complexity, or to society’s stubborn insistence to turn the other cheek, I cannot say, though I would hypothesize that it is some combination of the two. Regardless, for what it is worth, when looking for recordings of the aforementioned “Didn’t it Rain”, I made an encouraging discovery. Not only was Rosetta Tharpe’s rendition2 easy to find, but there were many different recordings of her singing it. As for Kay Starr’s? Even though I searched multiple databases, it was nowhere to be found.
Take *that*, Kay Starr! Actually, I wonder whether the writer got the name of her song wrong – she recorded one called “Rain, Rain” – maybe he was confused? In any case, the basic issue here is well worth your time and intellectual energy. Tracing the history of people’s *awareness* of cultural appropriation would make a fascinating project. Something to consider as you get ready for the final paper, maybe? (Might be too wide a scope for this class, but you could try to focus on a particular flavor of cultural appropriation, or appropriation of a particular song or style.)