This story concerns Roddy, a fantastic fiddler and folk musician hailing from Glasgow, Scotland, who I met on the Leeds music scene. To give a little backstory for those who don’t know, the city of Glasgow has a history of sectarianism between Catholic and Protestant communities, most famously associated with the rivalry between the city’s two professional football (soccer) clubs, Glasgow Celtic and Glasgow Rangers.
On the evening this took place, Roddy had just finished playing his set when a drunk clambered on stage to give his opinion of the performance.
“I just wanted to say how wonderful that was,” the drunk began, “because not only did he play that beautiful music, he plays in the Catholic style even though he comes from the Protestant part of Glasgow! How great is that?”
I may have recalled that the wrong way round, but it doesn’t matter to the point of the story. Roddy was unimpressed by this praise, absolutely furious, ready to get up and punch the guy. When he calmed down enough to speak, he said something that encapsulated everything I hold dear about music as a universal language:
“What that guy doesn’t understand is that among musicians there are no divisions. The only people who care about divisions are idiots like him”.
Music has the power to reflect, comment on and influence society. Certain styles and genres can become associated with lifestyles and political positions, but attempts to make music solidify divisions are always doomed to failure because the musicians themselves will be the first to find common ground with their supposed enemies. That’s not to say musicians don’t have political positions – of course we do – it’s just that, with the exception of a few hardcore purists who tend not to get on with anyone very well, musicians and creative people tend to see the world in terms of expressive colours rather than no-go areas to be feared and eliminated. The people who use music to enforce divisions, by and large, are not musicians.
In recent years, the term “cultural appropriation” has emerged as a way to attack artists who it is felt are cynically exploiting aspects of other cultures in disrespectful ways. Like many things on the internet, this is a genuine concern that quickly got turned into a stock cheap shot, with a particularly annoying focus on skin colour, something musicians have been trying to get past for over a century.
This is a huge oversimplification of music history, but modern western music can be seen as the sum of two musical cultures – African and European, with America (North and South) as the mixing pot that brought the two together. The circumstances in which they all reached America are dark indeed – the Eugenics-based attitudes that Europeans used to justify capturing and deporting Africans as slaves stand as an indictment of human nature that must never be belittled. A whole other culture was displaced and all but destroyed by the settlers and even after the slaves were freed institutional racism continued with legal segregation, reinforced prejudice and brutal (and fatal) attacks.
You know who didn’t want to be segregated? Musicians.
Jazz came about when African American musicians incorporated the instruments and tropes of European music, by 1915 white musicians were getting in on this exciting sound themselves. Segregation prevented mixed race bands at that time, at least until giants like Duke Ellington were able to insist on hiring who they liked, but even then not without consequences. This was not a case of white musicians piggybacking on the hot new thing – by the attitudes of the era, they had everything to lose by associating themselves with “The Devil’s Music”. Bix Beiderbecke sent his parents a copy of every record he ever released, but was dismayed to learn after their deaths that they had left every single one unopened. When rhythm and blues combined with country traditions to birth rock ‘n roll, there is a case to made that white privilege gave those musicians an edge – for example why Elvis Presley and not, say, Chuck Berry became the King of Rock n’ Roll – but by then music was, if not colourblind, a lot more integrated than society at the time would have liked.
In the UK in the 1970s, racist attitudes and far right political groups were on the rise, energised by Mosley’s 1968 “Rivers Of Blood” speech decrying Caribbean immigrants in British communities and worsening economic conditions especially for the working class. But those Caribbean immigrants had brought with them records of exciting ska and soul music from Jamaica and the US that energised white British youths who were sick of being told to hate on their friends just because of their skin colour. British pop and rock had long drawn inspiration from blues and reggae – the Rolling Stones had sought out and lionised figures like BB King and Muddy Waters just like the Two Tone movement would with Prince Buster and Jimmy Cliff. When Eric Clapton of all people expressed support for racist far right politics (he later said drugs made him do it), the response was Rock Against Racism, who co-ordinated with the Anti-Nazi League to put on a legendary demonstration and concert in London featuring a who’s who of British punk and reggae bands, with The Clash topping the bill. Further concerts followed and the the movement recently celebrated its 40th anniversary with an event in commemoration of the first (sadly the political climate now bears a few similarities to 1978). RAR also stands as a symbol of what punk rock actually stands for for those in the mainstream who thought it was just about spitting, shock and safety pins (John Lydon and Malcolm McClaren’s “middle class games”).
Let no-one tell you as an artist that any inspiration is off-limit, musical or otherwise. While there are always issues of taste and quality (if you must insist on faking an accent make sure you do it well and respectfully and let’s not even get started on blackface), white people rapping, Brits playing Americana, suburban world music recreationists and all the rest are simply part of the diverse collaborative fusion that is music. Respect and promote your influences, pass forward everything good that you receive and long live music.
That guy Roddy, he nailed it that night.