Retired University of Michigan professor of American Culture; Founding curator of Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Author of "Up Jumped the Devil: The Real Life of Robert Johnson" and "African American Folksong and American Cultural Politics: The Lawrence Gellert Story"
Professor of Organizational Behavior, Stanford Graduate School of Business
This conversation took place on February 22, 2021
Brian Lowery: How did you first come to focus on race and music?
Bruce Conforth: That story goes back to the early 1960s. I grew up in Greenwich Village during the folk revival, and young, white college students were discovering many amazing Black artists like Son House, Mississippi John Hurt, Skip James, Fred McDowell, and a number of others. I became attuned to Black music very early on, which was unlike anything I had ever heard before — people were singing these songs that sounded like they could have come from Mars. It sounded very primal and raw — they were playing the guitar in ways we had never heard before and singing about topics like “death letter blues.” It was an incredibly major revelation, and I immediately felt a kinship with the music and launched myself into that world. The first thing I did was begin taking lessons with Reverend Gary Davis, who is perhaps one of the greatest untaught guitarists of the 20th century. When you took a lesson with Reverend Gary Davis, you didn’t just learn the music. You listened to his stories, you ate the food that his wife had cooked, you heard the gospel tunes, and you were utterly immersed in the culture. And because of this, at a young age, I got a heavy introduction to Black culture, along with Black music.
Brian Lowery: When I think about music, I think of it, for me, as a personal soundtrack, or an emotional backdrop to what’s going on. It can help us make sense of, or teach us about, history. What does music tell us about the story of race in the United States, from your perspective?
Bruce Conforth: The story of America is inseparable from music; you simply can’t talk about American culture without talking about music, too. Africans were brought here starting in 1619, and from that time on, their influence grew and grew — particularly, we can see it in minstrelsy songs, slave songs, and work songs. The entire idea of a “work song” was utterly new to American culture. White culture, I believe, is compartmentalized — we treat everything as if it must be done in a specific time or place, and it should never leave that space. In Black culture, from my experience, there’s a much more integrated relationship with things; you sing when you work, you sing when you cook, you sing when you play. The relationship between music and life is holistic and nourishing, and it’s served as a sense of survival for hundreds of years. So yes, the story of American music is intrinsically tied with American history.
Brian Lowery: When we think of the U.S., the music that makes this country what we know it as now — blues, jazz, rock and roll, hip hop, etc. — has all been influenced by descendants of slaves. However, even though we know this is true, I’ve found there’s still a desire to separate that influence. There’s still a sense of “white music” and “Black music.” Why do you think that’s still around?
Bruce Conforth: Ownership is a big thing; people want to lay claim to their piece of the pie. African American music is a remarkable phenomenon because it came from people who were denied mainstream access to politics, society, economics, cultural forays — basically anything. But yet these people created music that became the most important artifact in American culture and influenced practically everything. I think that white culture recognized that, and said, “Wait a minute, we have to put our mark on this. We have to make sure that we have a claim to something somewhere in here.” In country music, for instance, DeFord Bailey was the first Black man to perform at the Grand Ole Opry, but yet his role was minimized, and he was only allowed to do certain things. White record producers during that era only allowed Black performers to record specific things, such as the blues. We could say that this was due to the compartmental trope of white culture, but I believe it goes deeper than that. It goes back to a desire to believe that there was a purity that got perverted at some point, and they can fix that by laying claim to certain portions of it.
Brian Lowery: What I think you’re saying is that white people have boundary maintenance. And I wonder if music also has the unfortunate, pernicious effect of making boundaries seem starker than they are. Growing up, for example, I listened to a lot of soul and funk music; the first album I remember is George Clinton. When I went off to college, though, I never recognized the songs people were playing at parties, and if I were to play a song that seemed incredibly popular to me, most people wouldn’t have any idea what it was. I wonder if our attachment and emotional resonance with music has had the effect of dividing us?
Bruce Conforth: In our culture, we tend to overlook the symbiotic relationship between all portions of this American experiment. Some believe that the “essential framework” of musical culture is that African Americans will create something unique since they are denied mainstream access to society, and the whites will come along and pick up on it, water it down for white consumption, and make a lot of money off of it. And then the Blacks who created it in the first place will say, “OK, that’s enough. Now we’re moving on to something else because that no longer has any relevance for us.” And that, I think, is one of the great myths of American culture. There is some truth to it, but the mythical part is that it overlooks the fact that there has always been a symbiosis between Black and white culture. White people were responsible for slavery and racism, and it was due to that that African Americans were able to create the formations of music that would become the blues. Blues has often been hailed as uniquely African American, but in a very absurd way, there wouldn’t have been the blues if it hadn’t been for racism. So if it hadn’t been for whites, technically, there wouldn’t have been the blues. At the same time, the most quintessential form of white American music, music that typifies everything about whiteness in the American South, is probably bluegrass. Yet Arnold Schulz, an African-American, taught Bill Monroe, the father of bluegrass music, how to play guitar and mandolin. This is the kind of symbiotic relationship that I’m talking about. Boundaries and culture are so incredibly artificial and problematic; they beg you to compartmentalize. Culture is not about compartmentalization; culture is a steam stream, ebb and flow, give and take.
Brian Lowery: When I grew up, hip hop was not really mainstream. But I remember the first time MTV played a hip hop video, and at the time, people were talking about putting parental guidance on music, and it wasn’t seen as “respectable.” There’s something about those boundaries that allows us to dismiss some genres of music. When I was growing up, it was cool for white kids to like hip hop because it was not normative. What do you think about that?
Bruce Conforth: I have a suspicion that, to a large extent, minstrelsy was a way for some whites to admire Black music in a way in which they didn’t have to admit it. Afro-American lovers knew that they could appreciate the music from a safe distance. As popular music began to progress, that distance became closer and closer with rock and roll, jazz, and rap. I still think that there’s a great deal of exotic “other” involved in the fascination among whites with rap music. It’s slightly dangerous; they get to live on the edge a bit or be a dark, strange person for some time. And then, they can go back to their suburb and sleep in mommy and daddy’s house. But for the time that they were at the rap concert, they were living dangerously.
Brian Lowery: One thing I find strange is how well white musicians do playing Black music. For instance, the Beastie Boys were great, but the amount of attention they got was disproportionate to the other people in that space. Some other examples are Vanilla Ice and Macklemore, who in 2014 was thought to have stolen the Grammys from Kendrick Lamar. Why are these white artists so accepted in the community?
Bruce Conforth: For the same reason that Elvis was. Just like Sam Phillips always said, “if I could find a white boy who could sing like a Black boy, I’d make myself a fortune.”
Brian Lowery: What’s going on with that? If you want what you think of as Black music, why don’t you want it from Black people?
Bruce Conforth: I think that’s changing, but it’s palatability. It’s more acceptable. It allows people to indulge themselves in the trappings without worrying about what it means to be Black in America.
Brian Lowery: It seems like there’s an idea of people embracing the culture, but not the people involved in producing that culture. If music allows people to fool themselves into thinking they’re engaging with something they’re not genuinely engaging with, that seems like a bad thing.
Bruce Conforth: To answer that, I’m going to go back 170 years. In 1848, Frederick Douglas came out and said that he was vehemently opposed to minstrelsy and that it was scum music of the earth and only appeased white minds. One year later, in 1849, he saw a Black minstrel performance and changed his mind, saying that anything that gets our culture out into the mainstream is a good thing. I had a student who was vehement that Eminem was Black because he had mastered the art of rapping and had grown up in a Black neighborhood and immersed himself in the culture. At first, I tried to tell him things like, “Eminem and a Black man walk into a bank, who gets treated better?” I used to bring up all kinds of examples like that, but it never made any difference. You’re right that the appreciation for the music is not enough. Without understanding, you’re barely getting the tip of the iceberg. Just listening to the music doesn’t tell you where it came from, or why, or under what circumstances it was created. Many of my students who were into hip hop didn’t know who the Black poets were. They didn’t have a clue as to the social construct of why rap came out of the South Bronx. This leads to significant issues of cultural appropriation as opposed to cultural appreciation.
Brian Lowery: You were a founding curator of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. But it hasn’t had the best record of dealing with Black artists.
Bruce Conforth: The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame had initially been a vanity project for Ahmet Ertegun, the head of Atlantic Records, and Jann Wenner, the head of Rolling Stone Magazine. Ahmet often gets great credit for what he did to bring Black music into the popular arena, but you have to remember that he paid Ruth Brown $75 and no royalties to sing “Mama, He Treats Your Daughter Mean,” which she did not want to sing and thought was not reflective of her experiences in the Black community. So yes, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and the whole popular music industry have been extraordinarily exploitive.
Brian Lowery: Some people call what’s happening right now a “racial reckoning.” There’s been an outpouring of rage, demands, and concern about the state of race in this country. What role do you see music playing in today’s moment of racial reckoning? And what would you suggest people listen to if they wanted to have a deeper understanding of the moment?
Bruce Conforth: I have a rather different perspective on the relationship between music and contemporary movements. I think music can serve as a rallying point, but to a large extent, music is kind of like the soundtrack to what’s going on. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s not necessarily a mobilizing force either. The scholar Lawrence Levine once said that ‘just because music doesn’t call for outright resistance, overt anti-capitalist sentiment, or strident revolution does not mean that it’s not political.’ There are many ways for culture and music to be political, and I think we see those more and more. I believe Black music has always been about agency, and issues of survival and resistance. Take something like Beyoncé’s “Formation” — if that wasn’t about agency, I don’t know what was.
Brian Lowery: Sometimes, agency is just the ability to feel joy. I think of hip hop as being more about self-assertion and was almost always purely party music. But that’s changing. For me, this moment is about the agency to push back against what’s wrong and an agency to celebrate what’s beautiful. It’s an affirmation that we’re here, we’re living this life, and that’s something to be screamed about and celebrated. That, to me, is a large part of what music is about.