Music Monday: Juneteenth Edition

The federal government made Juneteenth an official federal holiday on June 17.  My new home already had made it a city holiday last month.  Juneteenth is celebrated on June 19 every year, the date in 1865 when a Union general announced the Emancipation Proclamation in Galveston, Texas.  Texas was the last state in the Confederacy reached by Union troops.  Juneteenth has been around a long time, but celebrations have traditionally centered in African-American communities and in Texas.  That’s right: Juneteenth is another great cultural export of the great state of Texas.

And celebration is the right word.  Juneteenth highlights our (initial) triumph over America’s original sin and the (incomplete) culmination of the founding ideals embodied in the Declaration of Independence.  In that respect, the “independence” in the official name of the federal holiday (the “Juneteenth National Independence Day”) is appropriate.  The American Revolution was fought for independence from both the British and tyranny.  For almost one hundred years, a large chunk of Americans only got one of those.  But it is a day for everyone; we all get to live in a more perfect union, we all get freedom from collective sin.[1]

Photo credit: Bob Simpson

I’ve been reading Ted Gioia’s magisterial history of the Delta Blues.  The amount of musical talent present in a single rural, impoverished section of the country over the course of just a few decades is truly remarkable.  As is the series of accidents of history that spread that musical talent across the entire American (and British) musical landscape.  One of those accidents was innovation in cotton farming machinery sparking an exodus of Black Mississippians.  Another was Muddy Waters showing up for a tour in the U.K. with an electric guitar and the music that didn’t expect but soon grasped they needed.  It is no accident that the Rolling Stones are named for a Muddy Waters song.

It is hard to overstate the influence of African-American musicians and African musical influences on American music.  There simply isn’t anything recognizable as American music without it.  Even country, but certainly not rock.  As Muddy Waters himself said, “the blues got pregnant and they named the baby Rock & Roll.”  He personally seeded the fields for the future British Invasion on that 1958 trip to England.  It wasn’t just the music, it was the stage performance.  The audience at the 1960 Newport Jazz Festival had never seen anything like Muddy Waters, even in toned-down form.

White America gave Black America slavery and Jim Crow and they gave us American food and music.  It was truly the most one-side cultural exchange, if not of all time, then at least since the Jews and the Pharaoh.

Which isn’t to say it was a one-way exchange.  Cultural influences never flow solely in a single direction.  There is no more recognizable African-American music without other American influences than vice versa.  That’s what critics of cultural appropriation don’t get—culture ain’t got no owners, only spenders.

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[1] Think about it this way: If you were alive and free and paying taxes before 1865, some of that tax money you paid was used to pay men with guns to help keep millions of Americans in perpetual bondage, robbed of their God-given rights, on the basis of the color of their skin. It was, of course, also a grievous sin to force those payments. And the sins perpetuated by the government hardly stopped with slavery—you get to do a little bit of sinning courtesy of the men with guns from the government with every paycheck.

One thought on “Music Monday: Juneteenth Edition

  1. Cultural appropriation is what happens naturally when the average joe-blows from different cultures rub shoulders in a given area and want to get along and not hate each other. For the most part. People who write about it want them to hate each other, though.

    Liked by 1 person

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