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01/19/2017 05:20 pm ET Updated Jan 19, 2017

There's No Such Thing As 'Traditionally American' Music

American music, like America itself, has a complex history that shouldn't be whitewashed.

When asked this week by CNN’s Erin Burnett whether Kanye West would be performing at Donald Trump’s presidential inauguration ceremony, Tom Barrack, the chairman of the presidential inauguration committee, at first offered up a response that seemed suitable enough. 

“We haven’t asked him,” Barrack said. “He’s been great. He considers himself a friend of the president-elect, but it’s not the venue.”

Barrack could have stopped there and moved on easily enough. But he didn’t. Instead, Barrack tacked on one more reason that West, who met with the president-elect as recently as December, had not been invited to perform.

“It’s going to be typically and traditionally American,” he said. 

The remark has since provoked swift anger online, as many people interpreted Barrack’s use of the phrase “typically and traditionally American” as little more than racially coded language meant to imply “white.” West, in the way Barrack speaks of him, is not just a representative of hip-hop, but a representation of something standing in opposition to a more homogenous version of America that so many white Americans want to believe existed, but never really did. 

Whatever you think of West and his music, it should not distract you from the fact that the criticism of Barrack is not only correct, but necessary. By making the remarks on CNN, the chairman of Donald Trump’s inauguration committee perpetuated a fundamental misinterpretation of the history of American music.

Simply put, “traditionally American” music doesn’t exist. And for Barrack to imply that such a thing can only be defined by white artists is for him to continue on with one of America’s actual traditions: whitewashing the contributions of African-Americans and other cultures out of American history. 

Whenever the U.S. has come close to a “traditionally American” music, it has almost always come from black America. The banjo, so closely associated with bluegrass, has its origins in West Africa. “The Entertainer” and “Maple Leaf Rag,” two of America’s most defining tunes, were created by Scott Joplin, a black man. 

Blues, rock and roll, soul and hip-hop all have their roots in black culture, not to mention gospel and R&B. Jazz, that beautifully chaotic and winding musical form, referred to by some as  America’s classical music,” is certainly not what Barrack was thinking of when he referred to “traditionally American” music. If there has been an American musical tradition, it has been white performers popularizing and profiting from black music, from jazz to Motown, as black musicians turn and create a truly different sound once more. 

Iconic folk-blues singer Huddie Ledbetter, known as Leadbelly, back in 1937. 
Bernard Hoffman via Getty Images
Iconic folk-blues singer Huddie Ledbetter, known as Leadbelly, back in 1937. 

In the early 20th century, black contributions to folk music were minimized by white historians to more closely align the sound with the rural white man. Today, in the 21st century, black Americans are struggling to have their contributions to country music ― a genre often seen as just as white as folk ― recognized in much the same way.

Even some of America’s earliest popular songs weren’t American at all. “Barbara Allen,” sung during Colonial times, actually originated in England, as did the tune of the “Star Spangled Banner.” “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” one of the most American-seeming songs of all time, was originally sung by the British soldiers before the Revolutionary War as a way to mock the simple-looking Americans. 

In truth, perhaps the only traditionally white American sound was so explicitly racist that few would dare associate with it today. At minstrel shows in the 19th century, Northern white people dressed up in blackface and sang songs like “Zip Coon” and “Oh Susanna” while mocking the black people and black music their characters were based on. The music became popular — so much so that in a sick turn, black Americans felt compelled to eventually impersonate white Americans’ humiliating impersonations of them for a chance at success in the entertainment industry. 

The history of music in America is much like the history of America itself. It is shameful, chaotic, messy and confusing. And somehow, simultaneously, it is rich, creative, energetic and intertwined, too. It is a pot of culture, constantly melting together to create something thats fights against tradition, and, from time to time, creates something new.

But make no mistake: There is no such thing as traditional American music. And to believe there ever has been is to misinterpret what it is that actually makes America great. 

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