Lessons in appropriation

Maurice Ravel (photo Wikimedia Commons/Durand & Cie, Éditeurs)

Youth is wasted on the young. America is wasted on Americans.

Czech composer Antonin Dvorak spent much of the 1890s in the United States, splitting his time between New York City and rural Ohio. His ear was wholly taken by the Negro spirituals, as they were then called, brought to his attention by his black assistant, Harry Burleigh. Their modes and feelings were eventually animated in one of Dvorak’s most famous works, his eighth, the New World Symphony.

“The future of this country must be founded upon what are called the Negro melodies,” said Dvorak, the child of poor Czech peasants. “This must be the real foundation of any serious and original school of composition to be developed in the United States.”

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Maurice Ravel, in his less oracular way, made a similar observation a few decades later, on his tour of the states. He too recognized that the American music establishment, in thrall as ever to the intimidating European tradition, either failed to recognize the gold heap upon which it sat or could not be brought to transcend its loaded racial narrative to own these most complex and brilliant aspects of itself.

But Ravel wasn’t talking about the intellectualization and elevation of folk sources. He was talking about jazz, an advanced and cerebral form from go, and a black property. Like Dvorak, Ravel walked the talk, introducing elements of jazz, abstracted and fractalized, in his famous Piano Concerto in G major, the outer movements of which are an explicit homage to his pal George Gershwin. Gershwin’s witty distillation of jazz filtered through further rarification at the hands of the brilliant Frenchman hardly sounds like jazz at all, but the wheel kept spinning. Ravel and Debussy’s harmonic innovations would become some of the actionable foundations of bebop’s improvisations. And bebop had to go to Paris to make a living.

Great Britain’s reverence for Chess Records and Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf can explain why anyone would ever declare Eric Clapton — a most ordinary guitarist, albeit maybe the best most ordinary guitarist — god-like. Every British invasion band wanted that sound and that identity. The Stones and the Animals may have gotten close to it. The extravagantly musical ways in which the Zombies got it all wrong make them my favorite band of the era, after the Beatles.

I’m wary of the liberal use of the term “appropriation.” No one can control and direct the chain of inspiration and influence in the recombinant nature of art. If we could just get the chain of royalties right, we’d have done well.

What’s my point? I seldom have time to worry about that. The legendary British blues guitarist and Fleetwood Mac founder Peter Green, a complex figure whose tone gave BB King “a cold shiver,” has died.

Music is always trying to teach us something really subtle about diversity and commonality, if we would only let it.


Read more installments of Village Voices by John Burdick.

There is one comment

  1. Dwayne

    Thank you for posting the Dvorak quote. I read it a long time ago, forgot it, and had been struggling to recall the exact wording.

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