The Road to Cultural Appropriation

Road to Singapore. 1939. Retrieved from the Digital Public Library of America, http://cdm16786.contentdm.oclc.org/cdm/ref/collection/sayre/id/17768. Dorothy Lamour, Bing Crosby, and Bob Hope (left to right) in The Road to Singapore. Lamour performs ‘womanly’ tasks while the men relax.

Bing Crosby and Bob Hope made many films together, the most well-known being their Road pictures, of which the duo made seven between 1940 and 1947.1 It isn’t much of a series, as the characters’ names are different in every movie, but their characters and friendship are always the same types–one conniving yet charming businessman (Crosby) and one sucker (Hope). They’re always fighting over the same type of girl, played by Dorothy Lamour, and she always ends up with Crosby’s character. The only differences among these films are the locations. The first picture they made was The Road to Singapore (Schertzinger, 1940), and a still from the film is featured above. These movies are hilarious and remain classics because of the duo’s constant banter, sarcasm, breaking of the fourth wall, self-mockery, and all-around ridiculous shenanigans. However, what Singapore and the others that followed are guilty of is cultural appropriation.

Kenan Malik describes cultural appropriation as “not theft but messy interaction.”2 These films interact with several different cultures in problematic ways. Just watching the trailers illustrates some of the manners with which Hollywood has engaged with and represented other cultures.

All the films exoticize the ‘Other,’ especially the women. The Road pictures depict foreign locations as paradises of simplistic living, where women are either sex objects or homemakers. Singapore features a quite misogynistic view of Lamour’s native-Singaporean character and some quasi-blackface; Zanzibar depicts a typically-stereotyped, cannibalistic, superstitious, unintelligent African tribe; Morocco plays on stereotypes of the Middle East and pokes fun at the mentally disabled; the list goes on, I’m afraid.

I don’t believe these films intended to be super sexist and racist. It was another time, after all. Also, they don’t exactly ask to be taken seriously. I think it’s pretty obvious they aren’t attempting to give an accurate portrayal of other cultures. They are just trying to entertain audiences with some escapism from war time. The focus isn’t really on educating viewers; it’s more about the snappy dialogue between Hope and Crosby. The exotic locations only provided a ridiculous backdrop. Granted, the films added to stereotypes of the day and didn’t necessarily help matters, but they could have been worse.

As long as people know not to take these films seriously, Hope and Crosby are a classic duo and are worth a watch.

2 Malik, Kenan. “In Defense of Cultural Appropriation.” The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/14/opinion/in-defense-of-cultural-appropriation.html?smid=pl-share&_r=0.

Tee-pee Blues?

Tee-Pee Blues sheet music cover1

Tee-pee Blues1 2 is not your average song title. In fact, to a reader such as yourself, who is taking time to read blog posts for an American Music class that focuses on race, identity, and representation, such a title is at least astoundingly crass, if not downright offensive. How did someone possibly think it would be a good idea to write lyrics such as “Red man, for his canoe lonely,” set them to music that doesn’t remotely resemble Blues form, and then call it a Blues song? The answer however, as far as I am aware, is quite unsatisfying, and certainly not redeeming. Simply put, early 20th-century Americans were obsessed with exoticism (though admittedly that’s not what they called it then) and Tin Pan Alley loved nothing better than trying to capture Americans’ obsessions in music that could be marketed to them. And so, musical fluff that is more memorable for the tastelessness of its title than for its notes on the page was born. However, not all music produced by Tin Pan Alley was bad – it also produced classics such as Take Me Out to The Ball Game3. (“Classic” in this sense means something that pervaded popular culture, not to be confused with something that has an especial musical merit.)

All of this raises the question: what do we, as diligent musicologists, do about the fact that tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of Americans enjoyed and bought music like this? Do we simply frame it as a relic of times gone by, and justify our fellow Americans’ behavior as such? No! It is our duty to work to fight the cultural and economic forces that led to the production of such derogatory music, as such forces still play an incredibly active role in our lives to this very day. Spoiler: we have a lot of work to do.

Romanticizing Groups of People that We Slaughtered: American Music

Once white folk had finally finished settling in American, and only after they’d properly slaughtered thousands upon thousands of Native Americans, they could truly begin defining their musical compositions. Of course, per protocol, they began this by romanticizing those that they had previously eradicated and despised. Music has long since been composed through exoticism and romanticism of the “Other,” but it is brought to a new level when that “Other” is a group that was previously massacred in the place that this new music is now being composed.

My Indian Maiden, a beautiful piece composed by Edward Coleman in New York in 1904, is a prime example of this romanticism. He presents in the title a love story between a white man and his “Indian Maiden,” who is presented on the title page of the work as an exotic beauty of incomparable standards.
Coleman, Edward, Wilson, Harry H. My Indian maiden. New York: The American Advance Music Co., 1904.: Page 1 of 4

Not only is this in itself problematic, but the music also holds some truly “exotic” melodies and aspects.

Coleman, Edward, Wilson, Harry H. My Indian maiden. New York: The American Advance Music Co., 1904.: Page 2 of 4

The piece is written in Em and even in the first bar presents stereotypically Native American musical tones. The chromatic grace notes in the top part could be associated to a war cry or horn. The rhythmic bottom line can also be tied to drums or body percussion, as it doesn’t change often and is the baseline of the music. The grace notes continue throughout the piece in the accompaniment to the melody, as well as a repeated e f g f e, highlighting the minor key and the minor third.

The lyrics portray a man venturing into a forest glade where a young Native American maiden sits outside her teepee, wearing beautiful beads and awaiting him. He then presents her with trinkets abound in riches and sings his love to her. Eventually, they will be together and all of the tribes will rejoice as they exist in harmony with nature.

Of course, these lyrics present a slightly different truth from what truly happened. Music that romanticizes the “Other” has always been present in society, but the levels to which we accept it as entertainment without either knowing the proper story or respecting that it is extremely problematic must be addressed. In children’s books, in shows, and in society as a whole, exoticism and romanticism run amuck in a disrespectful manner, and it must be addressed and discussed, else it will never be changed.

 

Coleman, Edward. My Indian Maiden. New York, New York: The American Advance Music Co., 1904. Link

What sells sheet music?

Have you ever noticed that many ragtime tunes sound the same? Listen to the following two clips for their similar harmonic motion/progressions, the similarity in rhythmic syncopation/complexity, and form. Each have a general intro and short repeated sections, which unless you have become very familiar with the tune are very hard to remember.

The Felicity Rag:

felicityrag

The Ragtime Goblin Man:

ragtimegoblin

How is it possible that publishing companies could sell something so similar sounding and make it popular? It is clear that the Felicity Rag’s cover draws on minstrel like, simian caricatures, while the Ragtime Goblin Man has an enticing cover with a devil-like character controlling two musicians who according to the lyrics will get caught by the goblin and be made to join his ragtime band. Even thought the tunes’ striking similarity make them seem unmarketable, they have been made unique and sensationalized by their evocative front cover art and titles/lyrics. Publishers, composers, and artists who could appeal to the popularity of minstrelsy, the exotic, or the romantic, had successful marketing strategies for popular music. On one hand, it is problematic to have popular tunes, that “represent” different meanings, sound the same because there is a whole lot more complexity to music across cultural/racial/imaginative boundaries. On the other hand, it would be inappropriate to put a minor mode or augmented second in the ragtime tune that is named for Jewish culture or another Other as was done in Schultzmeier Rag, a Yiddish novelty.172.106.000.webimage

Now, thinking about today’s popular music, with similar harmonic progressions, rhythmic variations, and subjects, the marketing strategies really haven’t changed that much. When you think about the image sold with the music, whether it is the caricatured lifestyle of a celebrity, or the sensational lyrics, today’s popular music continues these successful marketing strategies at the expense of perpetuating problematic stereotypes.