Cultural Appropriation Can Be Beautiful
Next week, after I speak with my colleague Jane Coaston at a free virtual event The New York Times is hosting about matters linguistic as well as racial, she and I will visit another side of me: The storied soprano Angel Blue will sing “I Wonder What Became of Me” from “Blues Opera,” which I wrote about in August.
The song is a magnificent example of cultural appropriation — a phrase at the intersection of our debates about language and race — and we should be glad of it.
The song’s composers are white. Its music is by Harold Arlen of “Stormy Weather” fame, with words by Johnny Mercer, best known for “Moon River.” The song originated in the precursor to “Blues Opera,” the 1946 Broadway musical “St. Louis Woman.” Arlen and Mercer were what we might today call Black-adjacent artists, often writing, respectfully, in Black-derived idioms, for scripts about Black characters. And “I Wonder What Became of Me” is an art song, not a show tune — a lovely example of fusion music.
Its musical language is drawn from the European classical language but seasoned with blue notes and jazz-derived chord progressions from the African American tradition. Arlen and Mercer also let the piece stray as it needs to from the time-tested but constricting American songbook template of 32 measures divided into sections of eight, derived from the ticktock structure of the march.
It depicts a troubled mind with the blues indeed. The song was published in the key of E flat but wends into an unexpected A flat. It conjures a mood less than fully resolved, as in someone who has lost her sense of purpose and center. (Spoiler alert: The character has just killed someone.)
A ballad like this could have come about only in a country where both white and Black people have lived and, inevitably, shared with and imitated each other. This kind of fusion is found in ragtime, which welded the white American march form to the Black American rhythmic technique of syncopation: playing the rhythm of a song’s melody against that of the accompaniment rather than matching it. It may be hard to imagine today, but at the turn of the 20th century, a tune like “Maple Leaf Rag” felt hot.
The Black violinist, composer and conductor Will Marion Cook brought this feel to Broadway around the same time with the musical “Clorindy,” with lyrics by the famed African American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar. That was a passing hit, but the Great White Way truly took up the sound only when white writers, including Irving Berlin, started using it in their musicals. Jazz reached Broadway in the same fashion: In 1921, Black composers Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle lit up New York with their proto-jazz score for “Shuffle Along,” after which white Broadway incorporated the flavor of that score into what we now recognize as show tunes.
The result was a kind of song with memorable, as opposed to serviceable, melody often decorated with blue notes — unexpected minor notes replacing predictable major notes, rich harmony salted with hints of the chords central to jazz, and rhythm that often, as reviewers once said about ragtime, leaves you barely able to keep from moving your feet. Think: “Old Devil Moon,” “Put On a Happy Face” (yes, even that) and “How High the Moon.”
By the 1940s, this fusion was yielding work like “I Wonder What Became of Me,” in which the jazz component of the mix is prominent. This is where musical theater travels into Ellingtonesque places that leave the form’s enthusiasts bemused when laymen dismiss musicals as just love songs crooned on park benches. The artistry in “I Wonder What Became of Me” compares with that in the Schubert lied “Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel” — and with emotions more specific: not “He ghosted me” but “Is this what it all comes down to?”
To me, “I Wonder What Became of Me?” represents cultural innovation more generally. For one, the fusion happened far beyond the stage. The difference between the boopiness of Europop and the richness of modern American pop is due, historically, to what P.J. O’Rourke once satirically described as Europe’s “tragic lack of Black people.” (He was referring to Poland, but the point, however exaggerated, applies far beyond.)
The story of Black and white Americans frequently centers on abuse, dismissal and conflict, as it must. Beyond this, though, there has always been cultural melding, both above and below the radar. That melding has increased in tempo over the past several decades.
It is especially striking in language: American English among young people gets more infused by Black English by the decade. My girls enjoy a YouTuber known as SSSniperWolf, a young woman of, reportedly, Turkish and Greek ancestry who pops off casually with Black English words and idioms. For instance, I’ve rarely heard the whimsically scatological “dookie” uttered by someone who wasn’t Black. But she isn’t pulling some sort of quotidian minstrelsy; this effortless infusion of Black English expressions is now routine among many Americans her age and even older. A surly teen sweetly totaled my car not long ago (I’m fine!), and despite his being of South Asian descent, his speech was perfect Black English — and again, this is now to be expected. His cousins and friends who came to the scene all spoke the same way.
The fusion we’ve come to recognize is even in body language. The righteously disapproving neck swivel traditionally associated with Black women is now a gesture one can see young women of all ethnicities using. More than two decades ago, Stanley Crouch told Salon: “Carl Jung said that white Americans walk like Negroes, talk like Negroes and laugh like Negroes,” adding that Jung would have been in a position to know, being from “Switzerland, where they make the real white people”!
Of course, cultural appropriation can go overboard. We are justifiably wary today of those in power mimicking, sometimes profiting from, cultural products of the disempowered. Some see and take exception to mainly this in the dialect mixing I refer to. However, appropriation yields hybridity that, especially after the passage of time, only the most resolutely clinical of mind-sets can see solely as symptoms of injustice. Peoples sharing space will copy one another — even if they don’t always get along.
And in any case, another side of the incorporation of Blackness into America’s popular canon is the increasing dilution of whiteness as a cultural default. To see how far America has come, one need only watch about 15 minutes of 1950s television. “I Wonder What Became of Me” is a beautiful example of how we’ve arrived where we are: It can be a wonder indeed how beauty can emerge from, and in spite of, racial mistrust and dissension.
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John McWhorter (@JohnHMcWhorter) is an associate professor of linguistics at Columbia University. He is the author of “Nine Nasty Words: English in the Gutter: Then, Now, and Forever” and “Woke Racism.”