Austin's mixed chorale group, the Northwestern Singers performed a two-hour concert exclusively comprised of Motown hits. The concert was at the Paramount Theater on January 24, 2015 and featured much dancing, many costume changes, and an emcee so aggressively smarmy and intrusive that his schtick seemed some kind of ghastly and cruel parody. The Northwestern Singers is a chorale group consisting of about 35 singers. The performers are amateurs -- during the day, they are small-town bankers, chiropractors, insurance agents, Hormel Food middle-management and the like. Only two of the 35 are African-American and the choir's director, its choreographer, and the members of the excellent stage band are all White. Unavoidably, a program of this kind raises a question central to American pop culture: Who owns Motown? Or Jazz or the Blues? Who is authorized to perform music originating within the African-American community? Or, perhaps, more poignantly who is authorized to perform this music amateurishly, incompetently, without any accurate sense for what the music means? Is amateur enthusiasm a substitute for proficiency when white people play music created and made famous by African-Americans?
At the outset, I should disclose two factors. First, my pallid northern European DNA lacks the gene receptive to this kind of music on its deepest level. Although I admire most of the tunes performed in the show, I don't own a large collection of Motown records, have never purchased an album by Michael Jackson, and don't know much about the history of this kind of music. In Jim Jarmusch's excellent vampire romance, Only Lovers Left Alive, the two protagonists, ancient and wise aesthetes debate whether Motown recordings are superior to Stax -- the point is that soul music of this kind represents the very pinnacle of world culture, an achievement on the order of Shakespeare's sonnets or Bach cantatas. Although this may well be true, it is not a view that would naturally occur to me -- I know the songs and love some of them, but they aren't integral to my world-view. This is my loss -- who am I to quibble with an art form that has enraptured Jim Jarmusch, Camille Paglia and Terry Gross. Second, my step-daughter, Sena Ehrhardt is an established Blues singer; this week her most recent record was at number 5 on the Blues charts. Of course, she is as glamorously white as white can be, a star in Germany, and, I think, often disrespected, albeit covertly, because of her skin-color and Teutonic ethnicity. On the two occasions that I have watched Sena perform to largely African-American audiences in Chicago, at Buddy Guy's venue on Wabash, the crowd was interested, mildly enthusiastic, even encouraging -- but, at some deep level, the Black people in the Hall, many of them related by blood to famous Bluesmen (it was an awards ceremony) seemed indifferent to her performance; I thought it seemed to them to be a kind of novelty. In that context, the question of who legitimately owns the Blues, and who is allowed to take the stage to perform that music, was highlighted in a dramatic way.
The Paramount show was never exactly embarrassing, although it verged on the cringe-worthy a couple of times. During "Signed, Sealed, and Delivered," a young Black man, hopped out of the choir, cut a few, unimpressive dance moves, while surrounded by a kneeling circle of admiring dudes and gals in tuxedos. In general, the performances by the men's ensembles were calamitous -- the complicated texture of call and response between the lead singer and back-up wasn't well managed: the back-up singers responding to the lead's yearning expostulations seemed to be singing in a different key and too loudly at that. A civil rights song written by the great Sam Cooke was performed by a young girl who has become, briefly, an internet sensation, not only in our community but across the country: she scored a big success with a quasi-gospel, quasi-country-western tune. Many Soul songs feature an enormous range, particularly in the male parts that often have deep bass lines that surprisingly morph into a high, ringing falsetto. The Cooke song had this characteristic and it baffled the young woman: she sang the lower part in a gruff, hollow, barrel-chested voice that seemed like a caricature of Paul Robeson intoning "Ole Man River." This was unfortunate because the girl had a pleasing voice otherwise and sang the higher parts with competent verve. The famous funk riff in Stevie Wonder's "Superstition" was drowned in sluggish layers of Lutheran chorale harmonies while the singers posed in freeze-frame, apparently simulating the sinister antics of Boris and Natasha on The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show. One of my favorite songs, the transcendent and profound "Some Day (we'll be together)" appeared as a ghost of itself, weirdly uninspiring and lugubrious -- indeed, many of the numbers were performed at a lethargic, funereal tempo.
Some aspects of the show were simply inexplicable: the male ensemble contains a spritely blonde woman; during the Jackson 5 medley, choir members sported enormous frizzy Afros, all of them black except for one that was silver grey crowning a tall, middle-aged man -- one of my friends said that the guy was imitating Jerry Garcia and had wandered in from some other show. At the very start of the program, there was a weird prologue: the ghastly emcee read opening comments about Barry Gordy and his Motown records while a large motionless woman posed like an adoring fan at his feet, below the stage where he was speaking: it turned out that the woman, generously proportioned like a Wagnerian soprano, was the choir's director but the effect was baffling and, even, a trifle unnerving -- What in the world was she doing there? During "Mr. Postman," an elderly lady cavorted about in a cardboard mailbox, excreting from her hind-end letters that were delivered to the female chorus members by the emcee wearing a postal carrier uniform and slinking about with the gait perfected by Steve Martin in his King Tut routine. Throughout this all, the chorus members gamely shuffled back and forth and dancing in a manner of speaking: I observed them to perform the rotating lighthouse pointing gesture, the head shimmy where the skull and shoulders wobble with a kind Parkinsonian tremor but the torso is held rigidly immobile, the hand over hand rotary spin, the Indian scout, reeling in the big fish, petting the pooch, the slo-mo Australian crawl, the mammy wave with the palms of the hands flapping over the head ala Al Jolson, and, of course, the disco migraine -- the right-knee flexed to strike a pose, the right hand extended high overhead and pointing at the stars and, then, slowly brought to the forehead in a gesture of despair or exaltation (I'm not sure which). White people dancing to Soul music, I'm afraid, is generally a grotesque spectacle.
Some parts of the show were effective and moving: the tight harmonies in the female trios and quartets were lovely, particularly in "Baby, I'm in Love" and "Endless Love." Mary Bissen sang a powerful, sinister version of "I heard it through the Grapevine" and throughout the show there were many, if isolated, moments of excellence. But, in general, the effect was dispiriting. Many of female voices sounded to me like Jo Stafford, that is very clear with crisp articulation and close attention to pitch -- I am an admirer of Jo Stafford but her phrasing, I think, is antithetical to Motown's baroque emotionalism. Indeed, my principal criticism of the show was that the music sounded to me like the way I would sound if I were singing to myself in the car or shower. Even, worse, the music sounded to me the way I imagine it -- the way it replays in my memory, that is, purged of its ethnic force, its vibrancy, it's unique yearning virtuosity, a parody of itself sieved through my White consciousness. You go to a concert in the hope of being amazed: someone does a thing that you could never do, someone demonstrates a combination of fantastically assiduous, practiced skill and natural talent and leaves you gasping with the sense that the art partakes in the divine, it is ecstatic, it comes from some place mostly inaccessible to ordinary human beings. The worst thing I can say about the Northwestern Singers show at the Paramount was that it was generally prosaic.
As to the cultural insensitivity that some might perceive in a spectacle like this -- middle-aged and elderly white Chamber of Commerce types prancing around in Afro wigs -- my view is that it was all well-intentioned, done with a generous heart, and performed, albeit incompetently, with a great deal of honest enthusiasm. Clearly, most of the people associated with the show didn't know what they were doing. For instance, Paul Pruitt, the awful emcee, made a number of ill-considered jests about the Afro wigs worn by the chorus after the intermission: he claimed that the stage was heavily laden with Jheri-curl creams and lotions. But, of course, the Afro was called a "natural" precisely because it was a hair-style that did not require chemical relaxers and softeners of the kind necessary to create the glossy, loose curls associated with the permed Jheri coiffure. It's a minor point, perhaps, but indicative. In 1992, Michelle Schocked caused a minor controversy with the release of her album The Arkansas Traveler. The record contained a number of "Coon Songs" including "Jump Jim Crow". Shocked had planned to appear on the cover in minstrel blackface, but the record label vetoed her idea. In the liner notes, Shocked said that when a person of a one cultural background appropriates the music of another ethnicity, that is, when they "cork-up" (as she characterized it -- referring to white performers smearing burnt cork on their faces to blacken them), this must be done with great skill, sensitivity, and, even, love. The Northwestern Singers concert was replete with love, but lacking, I think, in the categories of skill and sensitivity.
I should note that my views on this concert are dissenting. The audience awarded the singers with a warm standing ovation.