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 Wallace Wylie

Ignorant Fantasies | Race and Class Delusions From David Thomas

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them featuring van morrison

The truth is, while British bands were playing Chuck Berry, embryonic American garage bands were cutting their chops on ‘Gloria’ by Them. In other words, rock music is a British creation that Americans subsequently copied. Bob Dylan named his fifth album Bringing It All Back Home in reference to the fact that British bands had shown Americans music from their own country that they didn’t know existed and now it was time for an American to take these influences back.

Black musicians were outcasts in their own country. They lived their lives on the sidelines instead of being treated like the musical innovators that they actually were. By claiming that rock music is authentic American music that only Americans are fit to play, David Thomas is reveling in unbearable ignorance. On the one hand, he casually appropriates the music of African-Americans and poor rural whites while on the other hand also claims ownership of this music on behalf of all Americans and disallows all non-Americans from participating. The actual music made by white people in the early 60s had almost no connection to the musical heritage America would soon discover. Thomas ignores the fact that the middle-classes scorned ‘race music’, ignores the political and cultural segregation that led to jazz and blues. He then claims that as a white middle-class male he has the right to pass judgment on non-American rock bands.

When reminded by Reynolds that there is really no such thing as American ‘blood’ and that America was and remains highly segregated Thomas makes perhaps his most startling claim of all. After Reynolds puts it to Thomas that America does not really have a ‘melting pot’, Thomas replies by saying:

Yes, we do. Only recently, since people like Oprah Winfrey and the do-gooders have taken over, has it been less successfully melted.

In his greatest feat of arrogance, Thomas ignores the economic and social damage wrought by slavery, segregation and Jim Crow, and blames an African-American woman for making America a less integrated place! Only moronic middle-class thinking could leap to this kind of conclusion.

What proof does Thomas offer up of the connectedness of American music? Greil Marcus.

Images are created – seminal things like ‘Heartbreak Hotel’. That image has possessed writers endlessly from the moment it was heard. I’ve written probably a dozen songs based on ‘Heartbreak Hotel’. Read Greil Marcus’s ‘Mystery Train’, it’s all about the passing on of communal images.

There you have it. Greil Marcus wrote about it in Mystery Train and it sure seems plausible so therefore it is undoubtedly historical fact. Marcus, ever determined to put a poetic, romantic spin on the music he writes about, has a habit of making dubious connections between songs that feel aesthetically pleasing but bear no resemblance to historical fact. Over-romanticising American history can lead a person to ignore what were very troubling realities. The 20s and 30s were not so much ‘Old Weird America’ but rather ‘Hellish Segregated Morally Repugnant Murderous Racist America’.

A black male living in the south in the 30s risked being lynched for even looking at a white woman in a way she or her husband found distasteful. Apparently, this was the ideal melting pot for America until Oprah Winfrey and the do-gooders came along. What David Thomas has done in this interview, and in his thinking, is to allow white, middle-class America to take ownership of images, music, and emotions that did not belong to them. Separated by race and class, the music of early 20th century America came out of poverty, out of prejudice, out of spirit-crushing realities faced on a day-to-day basis, realities that white middle-class Americans need never face.

Art belongs to no particular group or class, however, and the nature of culture means that Art becomes the property of all. David Thomas, after appropriating music from out with his race and class, then condemns others for playing music that supposedly does not belong to them. I’ve read many interviews by musicians. Some show remarkable intelligence, some show a disappointing lack of wit. Never have I read an interview that has such ignorance, such stupidity, such thoughtless arrogance, as the one in Totally Wired with David Thomas. He insults the working-class by claiming they are all but incapable of making adventurous art (I’m sure Mark E. Smith would beg to differ), he insults African-Americans by appropriating their Art and claiming it for all Americans, he insults non-American rock bands, and he actually claims that an African-American woman is partly responsible for making America more segregated (this seems like a variation on the tired theme of ‘race problems would go away if we stopped talking about them’).

To be honest, I’d probably care more if Thomas weren’t so irrelevant, if his ‘career’ didn’t consist of two decent albums made decades ago. [Oi! – Ed] Yet the interview contains enough moronic thinking, the kind that often passes for fact in America and elsewhere, that I feel it is my duty to bring others’ attention to it. The fantasy world that David Thomas inhabits reeks of privilege and conceit. Perhaps I expected a bit more intelligence, a bit more individuality, a bit more adventurousness to his thinking. Then again, he is a white middle-class American male. We can’t expect too much.

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