Review by Will Preston
On a dark night in 1920s Mississippi, the story goes, the bluesman Robert Johnson walked out to the crossroads and sold his soul to the Devil. He was gifted with a preternatural ability to play the guitar in return: the strings bending beneath his fingers, his voice filled with what sounded like the anguish of generations. When he died mysteriously at 27, he left behind almost nothing, just a scattering of records and a swirling fog of myths. Johnson’s songs feel bracingly authentic to this day, filled with the violence and repression facing blacks in the Depression-era South. But the stories told of his life are anything but authentic. Johnson’s identity was hijacked in the decades after his death, largely by white fans eager to spread legends and half-truths about the voice in their record player. This was not an unusual legacy for black, pre-war blues musicians. “White urbanites reshaped the music to fit their own tastes and desires,” the historian Elijah Wald has written, “creating a rich mythology that often bears little resemblance to the reality of the musicians they admired.”
There is a Johnson-esque character at the heart of Hari Kunzru’s new novel, White Tears, a 1920s bluesman named Charlie Shaw. Like Johnson, Shaw is a ghost, a shadowy figure who made a single recording in 1928—an eerie, haunted song called “Graveyard Blues”—and then vanished without a trace. When the record is unearthed in present-day New York and posted on the Internet, it sparks a frenzy among record collectors who are captivated by Shaw’s voice, “ancient and bloody and violent,” rising up from the crackle. It’s the kind of voice that burrows inside the listener, straight to “the guiltiest of his secrets.” (166)
Except none of it is real. Charlie Shaw is a complete fabrication, the invention of two white record producers named Carter and Seth. “Graveyard Blues” is a hoax, pieced together from field recordings and manipulated to sound “like a worn 78, the kind of recording that only exists in one poor copy.” (58) Even Shaw’s name was merely plucked out of thin air. But the ruse works. Offers to buy come flooding in from Germany, Australia, Japan. Seth is uneasy about the prank, but Carter basks in having pulled a fast one on the entire Internet. “These fuckers think this music was made in 1928, but we made that shit last week!” he crows. “So who’s the expert now? We knows the tradition? We do!” (61)
It’s a line that risks coming off as too pointed, especially since Carter is the epitome of every white college guy who thinks that his dreadlocks and “respect” for black music somehow absolves him from the mountain of money being funnelled into his trust fund from his family’s multinational corporation. Instead, given the recent wave of comments and controversies surrounding cultural appropriation (such as Hal Niedzviecki’s now-infamous editorial declaring that he “doesn’t believe in cultural appropriation,” and proposing a literal Appropriation Prize), it merely feels timely.
As White Tears makes abundantly plain, anyone who “doesn’t believe” in cultural appropriation needs to take a closer look at the history of American music. Appropriation of black music by whites has been rampant through the centuries: from minstrelsy and blackface to Elvis’ chart-shattering cover of Big Mama Thornton’s “Hound Dog,” to literally every rock n’ roll song written since. (The critic George Pasketes, helpfully epitomizing the problem, has argued that Elvis’ version of “Hound Dog” shouldn’t even be considered a cover, since most listeners at the time “were innocent of Thornton’s original release.”) In White Tears, the community of 78 RPM fanatics who lose their shit over “Graveyard Blues” are very real, described by the critic Amanda Petrusich as “an intense, competitive, and insular subculture obsessed with an outmoded technology and the aural rewards it could offer.” There’s a bitter irony that so many of these men are obsessed with the blues, a genre of black music that rose in response to centuries of slavery, racism, and general oppression. Once again, black voices have been denigrated to the status of coveted objects.
White Tears pulls no punches on this front. It hums along for much of its first act as a satirical critique of two white men who consider themselves above appropriation—a mindset that culminates in their belief that they can literally create black music. But as Niedzviecki (and many others) have discovered, sometimes the appropriated punch back. And the book shifts into stranger territory when Seth and Carter are contacted by a collector who claims to have had his own encounter with “Graveyard Blues”—sixty years ago. He’s frightened by the song and the violence he claims has followed it through the years. Seth, unnerved, tries to console the collector by assuring him that there is no record, no song, no Charlie Shaw. Just studio wizardry and make believe. But the man is intractable. “You didn’t make up Charlie Shaw,” he replies. “Charlie Shaw is real.” (120)
The world of the blues is filled with stories of ghosts, haunts, and the supernatural. Many, like Johnson’s deal with the Devil, have been propagated by white listeners, a fetishization of the mysterious “exotic” South. (Besides, how else could a black man be so good at something?) But they provide an ample universe for Kunzu, who funnels them into a quasi-magical realist interrogation of privilege and racial exploitation that involves the ghosts of long-dead bluesmen, a hallucinatory road trip into the rural South, and time folding backwards on itself—and that’s before the sharp left turn into David Lynchian surrealist terror. In the hands of a lesser writer, it could’ve been a mess, and there are points when the novel comes perilously close to collapsing under its own weight. But Kunzru keeps a tight grip on the reins, and accelerates the tension into a profoundly unsettling climax.
And then there’s the question that simmers beneath it all: who is Charlie Shaw? A ghost; a lingering presence; the face of a suppressed, ugly truth. Kunzru uses the mystery of “Graveyard Blues” to shrewdly expose what many people seem to have trouble grasping: that appropriation has little to do with creativity, let alone free speech, and everything to do with power. The power to mold another’s story to your liking. The desire to possess that which does not belong to you. The privilege to forget, to try on an experience like a coat and take it off when you tire of it. “You wanted the suffering you didn’t have,” Kunzru writes, breaking the fourth wall in a breathtaking ending:
“the authority you thought it would bring…the swagger it would put in your walk. Then came the terror when real darkness seeped through the walls of your bedroom, the walls designed to keep you safe and dreaming. And finally your rising sense of shame when you admitted to yourself that you were relieved the walls were there.” (271)
White Tears is the story of what happens when those walls come down.
Will Preston is a writer, journalist, and critic. His writing has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and has appeared in numerous publications, including Maisonneuve, The Masters Review, and Glassworks Magazine. You can read more of his work at his website, willprestonwriter.wordpress.
A native of Virginia, Will has since lived in London, Amsterdam, Portland, and Vancouver, BC, where he attended the MFA program in Creative Writing at the University of British Columbia. He is currently finishing his first book, a work of nonfiction about Appalachian old-time music.